Tuesday, January 4, 2011

White Bean & Barley Cholent: A Winter Cassoulet

During a recent chilly, rainy week I had a sudden yen for a bowl of cholent, the traditional slow simmered dish beloved by generations of European Jews and their descendants in the diaspora. Cholent typically contains a combination of beans, barley, potatoes and meat seasoned with onions and garlic; it is cooked overnight in a heavy covered dish and eaten as the main meal on Shabbat, the day of rest. Jews of Middle Eastern heritage prepare a similar recipe called hamin (Hebrew for "hot"); the equivalent North African dish is known as deffina.

Both cholent and hamin closely resemble the rustic French slow cooked cassoulet; in fact some sources claim that cholent was the predecessor of cassoulet and that etymologically, cholent is derived from the French words chaud (hot) and lent (slow). Much lively discussion can be had about the origins of cholent, its preparation and which ingredients are truly authentic, but what really matters is the final result: a satisfying, warming meal to be savored slowly in the cold days of winter.

This vegan rendition of cholent/ cassoulet is simple to assemble; it may be cooked on the stove top or in the oven. You may also begin the cooking process on the stove and continue it in the oven. Use a heavy pot with a thick bottom and a tight lid. The beans and barley need about an hour to cook thoroughly but the flavor will deepen with longer cooking. The ratio of beans to barley is flexible and may be altered to your taste. To slow bake in the traditional manner, set oven at 225 degrees and cook for at least three hours or overnight.

2 tablespoons olive oil
2/3 cup leek or onion, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 bay leaves
1+1/2 cups white beans, soaked 6- 8 hours
1 cup pearl barley
6 cups or more fresh water
1 large carrot, sliced into rounds
2 or 3 small Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered
1 teaspoon dried sage leaves
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (or to taste)
1- 2 teaspoons good quality paprika

In a heavy soup pot saute leek, celery and garlic in olive oil until fragrant. Add bay leaves, beans, barley and water. There should be at least one inch of water covering the beans and barley; most of the liquid will be absorbed during cooking. Bring to a boil and lower heat to a simmer. Place a flame tamer beneath the pot to ensure even heat and to prevent scorching. Allow to cook for at least 45 minutes or until beans and barley are tender, adding more water as needed. Layer carrot slices and potatoes on top of beans and barley, sprinkle with sage leaves, sea salt and paprika. Cover pot and allow to cook another 20 or 25 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

The finished dish will be very thick; serve in warm bowls garnished with a little chopped parsley or other green. Store cholent/cassoulet in glass containers in fridge for several days. For a quick meal heat thoroughly, adding water as needed to create a bowl of bean & barley stew as seen in the photo above.