Take the pot roast of my grandmother Arentz.
Grandma Arentz was a large woman who owed a sardonic disposition to a number of hard knocks. She had two favorite haunts when she visited our house outside Chicago. The first was at one end of the kitchen table, where she communed with a tumbler of bourbon and cackled at the antics of her five grandchildren. The second was in front of an upright piano in the living room, where she pounded out show tunes like a Liberace on steroids.
Every once in a great while, to our everlasting astonishment, Grandma Arentz was swept away by memories of housewifery. She would push her Jim Beam aside, rise up in her faded housedress, and heave herself into a cooking fury. The result was a giant Sunday pot roast that emerged from the oven surrounded by potatoes, carrots and onions, all slowly bubbling and browning in a deep baking pan wrapped with aluminum foil.
Lifting the aluminum foil unleashed waves of enticing steam and beefy aromas. We would watch anxiously as the great slab of chuck was carved into thick, tempting pieces, transferred to plates and drenched with pan juices. We lifted our forks, nearly levitating with anticipation: Where to poke first into those lovely long strands of braised meat?
Then into the mouth, where our eager taste buds shrieked, but not with joy.
No, not with joy, because the meat was dry.
I mean dry, as in, We-was-robbed dry.
Sad, but true: When it came to Grandma Arentz’s pot roast, the sensations we experienced in our mouths never lived up to those we saw with our eyes and smelled with our noses. For a long time, this haunted me: How could a piece of meat that looked and smelled so good coming out of the oven just plain fail on the tongue?
I never blamed Grandma Arentz, whose pot roast obviously was a source of pride. I actually thought this must be in the nature of things: If it was pot roast, it must be dry.
People would boast about their cooking: “And I make a great pot roast,” they would say, as if this certified them as world-class chefs. I dismissed them as imposters. Nobody, I thought, could make a pot roast that isn’t dry. Can’t be done.
Years passed, yet I retained the image of Grandma Arentz’s pot roast as a sort of metaphor for the cruel twists this life can dish up. As far as pot roast goes, these were my years of wandering in the wilderness.
But then, as so often happens, things took a turn. My perspective shifted. I met cholent, the meaty braise Jews prepare for their Sabbath meal, and suddenly I had a new outlook on pot roast.
Apparently, cholent (also spelled chollent, or tscholent) is what Jews were making when my grandmother’s Norwegian ancestors were busy drying their cod. Cholent elevates shoulder of beef to the metaphysical: It is a triumph of man’s determination to eat well in the face of a religious conundrum.
While some cooks were merely puttering away at pot roast, the Jews grappled with a true dilemma. Strict interpretation of Jewish law forbids not only the lighting of fires on the Sabbath, but also the preparation of food. Yet rabbis consistently urged their flocks to serve a hot meal on the Sabbath as a kind of mitzvah, or good deed.
Determined Jewish homemaker’s found they could comply with Talmudic restrictions and still have their hot Shabbat supper: They put the meat in the oven the day before.
Since the Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown Friday, that meant assembling a one-pot meal and laying it over a slow fire shortly before nightfall. The pot—often a big bronze one emblazoned with Hebrew script– stayed in the oven well into the next day.
Hence, some believe the word “cholent” derives from a French phrase meaning “slow heat.”
Across the Jewish world, cholent evolved around local cuisines. In Eastern Europe, the pot typically contained barley and a variety of beans. If there was meat, big pieces of beef chuck or brisket, sometimes tongue and marrow bones, went into the mix. In other words, foods that will stand up to a long cooking time. In France, the meat might be duck or goose. In North Africa and the Middle East, lamb and rice.
Often, cholent did not cook at home, but at the village baker’s. That presented other issues: Jewish law frowns on carrying heavy objects outside the home on the Sabbath. Too much like work. So the villagers would create an eruv, a way of designating the entire village, or shtetl, a private domain so that everyone could get their cholent home from the baker’s.
Over time, cholent—with its prodigious cooking requirement–acquired mythic status as the Diaspora’s reply to the eternal question, How long, oh Lord, how long? Meaning, whatever trials and tribulations, there was always a nice, warm cholent waiting at the end of the day.
Not being Jewish, this was news to me when, in my Midwestern goyishness, I discovered cholent years ago in a cookbook by Bert Greene.
It was one of those eureka moments: A pot roast that isn’t dry.
Of course, Bert’s was just one of millions of cholent recipes. Cholent is a dish that changes from one house to the next. But his had all the classic elements, with a sort of gypsy twist: a big, fatty piece of beef, beans, barley, onions, garlic and paprika. It did not call for potatoes or lima beans, as so many cholent recipes do. But it did offer one surprise: ground ginger. All this immersed in beef broth and slowly cooked until the meat is moist and tender and the beans and barley transform into a kind of juicy pilaf, utterly infused with beef essences.
Can you say, Ahhhh….
Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether meat is dry or just flavorless. In red meat, the compounds that impart flavor as well as juiciness are in the fatty connective tissues. That’s why tough cuts with lots of fatty connective tissues, such as shoulder, shank, breast, ribs, tend to gain in flavor and succulence as those tissues are rendered gently, in a moist environment, over a low fire.
Thus, my early efforts at cholent using so-called “select” cuts of meat, or two grades below prime, failed. Too lean, too dry.
Likewise, various “choice” cuts of boneless chuck from a high-end grocer also fell short of the right stuff. Flavor missing.
Finally, having made this particular cholent countless times, I’ve settled on a thick, “choice” bone-in cut of shoulder, the so-called blade roast. I prefer the rustic texture of chuck, as opposed to the more finely grained and easily sliced brisket. I think the bones add flavor, and there is plenty of fat to keep the meat moist.
There is one important note on preparation: This recipe only requires four hours cooking.
Since there are still people in the world cooking their cholent overnight, I tried it. Result: After 17 hours at 190 degrees, the beef was a bit overcooked. The broth had separated from the cooked beans and barley. I adjusted by straining out the liquid, reducing it, and using it as a sauce. But an orthodox interpretation would disallow this on Shabbat: Too much like cooking. You’d have to serve it in a soup bowl.
Here’s an alternate treatment for orthodox cholent: Bring the cholent to boil in a large crockpot just before sundown. Then turn the setting to “low” and let the cholent simmer overnight until you are ready to eat it.
This is my adaptation of the recipe published by Bert Greene in “The Grains Cookbook.” According to Greene, he based the recipe “loosely” on one from Fanny Sylverstein in “My Mother’s Cookbook.”
If you insist on potatoes and lima beans in your cholent, you can add to this recipe two pounds boiling pototes, such as Yukon Gold, cut into bit-sized pieces, and 1 ½ cups frozen lima beans.
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 5-pound, bone-in beef blade roast, about 2 ½ inches thick
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons hot paprika
½ teaspoon ground ginger
2 quarts beef stock or broth
1 cup dried pink beans
1 cup pearl barley
1/3 cup chopped parsley for garnish
Preheat oven to 250 degrees
Over a moderately high flame, heat oil in a heavy Dutch oven. Brown the meat all over. Remove meat to a platter and reserve. Drain off all but 3 tablespoons of fat from the Dutch oven.
Lower heat to medium-low. Sweat the onion and garlic in the Dutch oven until the onion is tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in salt, pepper, paprika and ginger. Add beef broth, raise heat and bring to a boil. Stir in beans and barley. Bring mixture to boil again and add the roast.
Cover the pot and place in the oven. Cook for 2 ½ hours. Stir the mixture. Cook another 1½ hours. If the mixture is too wet, remove the lid and cook some more in the oven.
There may be as much as a cup of fat on the surface of the cholent. To serve, spoon off the fat. (If you cook the cholent a day or two ahead, the fat is easily removed with a spoon once it has chilled in the fridge.) Spoon the bean and barley mixture onto plates or large, shallow bowls. Place slices of meat over the top and garnish with chopped parsley.
Note: You can make this with a smaller, boneless piece of meat. Since pastured meats are leaner, check for doneness after the first 2 1/2 hours cooking. If the meat is done, remove it and just continue cooking the rest of the dish in the oven. If, after 4 hours, the contents of the pot are still too liquidy, remove the lid and bake some more, or move the pot to the stovetop and continue cooking there over very low heat until the liquid has reduced.