Wednesday, January 21, 2004


When I was growing up, my mother wouldn’t let me in the kitchen. I suppose she thought she was doing me some kind of favor. But years later, I still panic when I’m asked to prepare anything more sophisticated than macaroni and cheese.

There is one dish, however, that I’ve managed to perfect. So much so that, in our house, it’s known as “Abba’s Cholent.”

Cholent, for the uninitiated, is the ultimate Shabbat meal: a thick meat and potatoes stew that simmers all night on a hotplate until the water has just about evaporated and all you’re left with is a gooey, mushy, absolutely delicious concoction that sticks to your ribs as much as your plate. It’s the perfect food for a wintry Saturday afternoon.

Cholent was actually dreamed up to address two critical issues in the religious household: what to eat on Shabbat since traditional Jews don’t cook on the Sabbath, and how to prepare something really fast since there’s never enough time on Friday before the sun goes down…especially when Shabbat can begin as early as 4:00 PM in mid-December and January.

My cholent recipe goes something like this:

- Soak a bunch of red beans the night before (“a bunch of” is the correct measurement, I assure you);

- Throw the beans in the pot an hour before Shabbat along with some barley, onions, carrots, two kinds of cut up but not peeled potatoes (sweet and white);

- Top it all of with several chunks of red meat (you can use chicken but why not go all the way...)

- Then add in Abba’s secret sauce –a hunk of honey, a sprizzle of ketchup, and a glob of liquid garlic. Finish with salt, pepper, zatar and cumin;

- Cover the mixture with water and boil for an hour, then shift it to the hotplate until the next day.

“Abba’s Cholent” made a late start this winter – it wasn’t until last week that I finally deemed the lingering chill in the air worthy of the full cholent treatment. I had just finished adding the final spices and was heading downstairs to get five-year-old Aviv into the bath when an uneasy thought crossed my mind.

“Jody,” I called across the house. “What color is cumin supposed to be?”

“Yellow,” she answered matter of factly.

“Is there such a thing as black cumin?” I asked.

“No,” came the reply.

“Um…can you come look at this for a minute, honey?”

They were bugs. Tens of tiny black bugs had infested the cumin, which probably hadn’t been used since last year’s cholent.

“What are we going to do?” I demanded in a panic. This was definitely beyond my mac and cheese repertoire.

“We have to throw it out,” Jody said. “You know bugs aren’t kosher.” Not to mention being really disgusting in a stew.

“But we can’t,” I sputtered. We had a full table of guests coming over and the cholent was the major part of the meal. Not only that, but the kids were so looking forward to the first installment of “Abba’s Cholent” this year.

What was supposed to be a culinary triumph was fast turning into gastronomic nightmare. This was even worse than the time Jody asked me to make a tomato soup, and I accidentally poured in chili powder instead of paprika.

Did I mention our guests that night were my in-laws-to-be?

“I can get the bugs out.” I said defiantly “It will take awhile, but I can do it.”

And I set to do just that. I removed anything black: pepper corns, black markings on the potatoes. I consoled myself with faulty logic: according to Jewish law, as long as any bugs that remained were less than 1/60th of the total, the dish wouldn’t be considered treife – that is not kosher

Of course, this rule is supposed to apply to “after the fact” discoveries, not upfront transgressions. And I’m not sure it even applies to bugs. Still…

I thought about a report I once heard on the National Geographic Channel, about how in places like Thailand they eat bugs. “They’re delicious, whether fried or sautéed and so full of nutrition,” the peppy announcer reported. “Just pop them in your mouth, exo-skeleton and all. It’s like candy!”

Jody bathed Aviv. I continued to painstakingly pick out the bugs. The sun was going down when I finally got the cholent on the hotplate just as Shabbat was beginning. We headed off to synagogue and didn’t talk about it again. I would serve the cholent. We wouldn’t mention to our guests what had happened. No one would ever be the wiser.

And then: disaster struck again. We had been plugging the hotplate into a timer so it wouldn’t waste electricity by being on for 24 hours straight. But cholent needs to cook all night. And I had neglected to switch the timer off. When I awoke and stumbled into the kitchen searching for my morning granola and rice milk, I immediately detected something was missing: no smell of bubbling meat and potatoes.

The cholent was cold, the meat clearly spoiled by now.

Jody saw this as a sign. We dumped the contents of the pot in the garbage. The guests were spared. We doubled the salad and borrowed an extra challah from the neighbors.

That night I had a dream. In it, our guests were eating my cholent. They loved it. And then one of them commented, “Mmm…crunchy!”

I looked down and, breathing a dreamy sigh of relief, noticed it was just an undercooked bean.

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