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Crockpot Crapshoot

Thursday, March 8, 2012

While today's post is not holiday related, I'd be remiss if I didn't start by wishing everyone a very happy Purim!

Dear Miriam,

While it's still winter, I want to make a great cholent for Shabbat, but my slow-cooker creations never turn out the way I expect. Any suggestions?

Signed,
Crockpot Crapshoot

Dear Crockpot,

For those readers who might not be familiar, cholent is a thick stew that traditionally cooks overnight on Fridays to be served for Shabbat lunch. The first time I had cholent was in college, and the Goucher kosher dining hall staff made vegetarian cholent with whole eggs in it. After 24 hours, the eggs had hard boiled and turned brown and tasted, if not quite delicious, then definitely unlike anything else I'd ever eaten, but you had to watch out for bits of shell in the rest of the pot.

When I first got a crockpot, I immediately called my sister to ask her what to do with it. I took her advice that first Shabbat, but I soon realized it's not such an exact science and started trying out new ideas on my own. Check out my Shabbat blog, 25x52, for a lot of cholent and other slow-cooker recipes. (There are more scattered through the posts, but these are some of my favorites. Followers of 25x52 already know this, but I tried for much of 2011 to make the perfect chana masala in the slow-cooker, but I never got it quite right.)

I say all that by was of commiserating with you about the elusiveness of the perfect cholent.  We Philadelphians are lucky, though, because there is a cholent master in our midst. Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch of Mekor Habracha Center City Synagogue makes the best cholent I've ever eaten (and I've tried quite a few since those first college eggshell days), so I asked him for his thoughts. Here's what he had to say:

"The great thing about cholent is that it is a big mix of many foods, so experimentation is in order. For example, I don't love potatoes, so instead of all potatoes, I add some sweet potatoes. I also don't love beef, which I consider heavy, so I leave it out and make vegetarian cholent or replace it with lamb, which is delicious. Beans don't agree with many people (and you know what I mean), so I use barley instead, which has great texture. Kishka is a really important ingredient, and instead of the fatty meat kind, I find that vegetarian kishka adds great taste to any cholent. I add my favorite spices: onion and garlic powder, Chili powder, and cayenne pepper for some kick. Paprika, salt and ketchup are American cholent staples that work well with most recipes. The best advice I can give is to experiment with foods and spices you think would taste good together until you have your perfect recipe. Also, the amount of water, temperature and the length of cooking time are important elements and need to be tested. Everyone is welcome to taste mine on Shabbat morning at Mekor Habracha!"

Whenever I talk about slow-cooking with people who know food and food blogs, they refer me to this website, so I'll do the same for you. Also, as much as I can't bring myself to experiment with cholent during the rest of the week, getting comfortable with the slow-cooker when it's not Shabbat by making other kind of soups and stews can help boost your cholent-cooking confidence.

Let me know if you come up with a great recipe, and be well,
Miriam

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