I had never tasted cholent before I came to Israel, nor did I know of its existence. The closest thing my mother ever made was a mean Boston-style frank-and-bean casserole, but that was usually on Sundays. Cholent, or hamin, as it is referred to in the Mishna, is an ancient Shabbat dish that improves with its long stay overnight in the oven, on an electric platter, or on a low light on the stove-top, and the modern version harks back to either Sephardim or Ashkenazim, depending on whom you ask. Traditional cholent contains beans, one or two grains (like barley or whole wheat, one of which is usually tied up in a small cotton drawstring bag and hidden in the mixture), meat, goose or other fat, potatoes, eggs (in the shell) and sometimes kishke (stuffed intestines). But I prefer my own vegetarian version, which is far healthier and easier to digest, leaving one satisfied but not lethargic.
So, first and foremost are the onions - you need more onions than you can imagine to make a really good cholent, whether vegetarian or not, and the browner they are, the better color they'll impart to the finished dish. My personal method is to chop them into quarters and cut each quarter into smaller wedges, which I then saute slowly in a combination of canola and extra-virgin olive oils, stirring often until they start to turn golden. Then I add a heaping tablespoon of brown sugar, silan (date syrup), honey or real maple syrup, and continue cooking (I also throw in a handful of peeled garlic) until the onions are a deep brown. You can also add a handful of unpeeled cloves to the casserole before baking.
Then come the beans. The most popular beans for cholent are white beans and chickpeas, but you can also vary or substitute black-eyed peas or lentils, which are easier to digest. The harder-to-digest beans should ideally be soaked overnight, but a quicker method is to boil them with water to cover for five full minutes, and then let them soak for an hour or two before using.
As far as seasoning goes, beans absorb a lot, and you can always add your favorite spices. But I like to make my cholent with whole coriander seeds and cumin, which both help alleviate the uncomfortable after-effects usually associated with bean consumption. Other spices that help digestion are caraway seeds, anise seeds, star anise and fennel seeds. You might also want to use paprika for color, bay leaves for their delicate flavor and a hefty amount of freshly ground black pepper in addition to sea salt.
For the vegetables, most people add peeled potatoes to cholent, which is a shame because they lose a lot of flavor, nutritional value and fiber when peeled, and are more likely to fall apart. I use either thickly sliced, unpeeled medium-sized potatoes or the small ones usually sold in bags for microwave use (sometimes I halve them). You can also add large chunks of (scrubbed) unpeeled sweet potato, or the long yams cut into two-three pieces. I've also added pre-soaked dried shiitake mushrooms and sometimes prunes.
To make up for the lack of beef or smoked goose breast often added to cholent, I use three different items to give a natural smoked flavor. The first is frikeh, toasted green wheat (the kali
of the Bible), found in gourmet shops and Arab markets, the second is Jerusalem artichokes (these I usually peel, but you can also just scrub them), and the third is a brand new product called "Smoked Salt Flakes" produced by Melah Ha'aretz - the Israel Salt Company.Makes 8-10 servingsStage 1:
1 cup white beans, soaked overnight
1 cup chickpeas, soaked overnight
1 cup barley, rinsed and drained
1 cup frikeh or whole wheatberries, rinsed and drained
3 Tbsp. olive oil mixed with canola oil
3 very large onions, cut into wedges
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
12 garlic cloves, peeledSeasoning:
11⁄2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. paprika
1 Tbsp. whole coriander seeds
11⁄2 tsp. black pepper
11⁄2 tsp. smoked salt, or sea salt (or more to taste)
3-6 bay leaves depending on sizeVegetables:
500 gr. potatoes, thickly sliced
250-300 gr. Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and cut into large chunks
6-8 eggs, preferably organic
Prepare the beans by soaking them overnight or with the quick method outlined above. Drain and pour the water over your houseplants. Place beans in a large bowl with the barley. Put the frikeh in a small cloth bag with a little olive oil and salt.
Heat the oil and saute the onions slowly over medium-low heat till golden. Add the sugar and garlic and cook until the onion is browned.
Add the onion/garlic mixture to the beans together with the oil in the pan, and add the seasonings and vegetables. Put in a large heavy casserole together with the cloth bag and the eggs (which should be mostly hidden in the mixture). Add water to cover plus 2.5 cm., bring to a boil, partially cover and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes. Close the cover and continue to cook over very low heat, or in a low oven, overnight. Check occasionally and add a little boiling water if necessary.