Finding Meaning in a Cholent Pot Pie
Shared by Yehuda Sichel
Recipe Roots: Philadelphia
“The whole day was a cholent party,” chef Yehuda Sichel says about Saturdays in his Baltimore home growing up. Morning services at shul were followed by cholent at the synagogue. That was followed by a lunch at home of challah, dips like hummus, gefilte fish, deli meats, at times cold schnitzel, and always cholent — one vegetarian and another with kidney beans, barley, flanken or beef short ribs, and kishke, a delicacy made traditionally by stuffing beef intestine with grains and meat.
There was also “some ketchup, some soy sauce, and some duck sauce [in the recipe]. Those are the three Orthodox secret ingredients — you can’t go wrong,” Yehuda jokes.
The heavy stew, which is left to come together in a pot overnight, is a staple of many observant Jewish families who trace their roots to Eastern Europe. For Yehuda’s family, their cholent line starts with his mother’s mother Charlotte. A Hungarian Jew with blonde hair, she posed as a gentile during World War II. By the late 1940’s she was living in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. “I think my grandmother was cooking in the kitchen there,” he explains. According to family lore, when she immigrated to the U.S. in 1949, the only possession she brought with her was a pot used for cholent that produced a legendary crust. Her cholent was known for being capped with challah kugel, a savory bread pudding, that made the dish appear like a large pot pie.
Yehuda says he barely remembers Charlotte’s rendition, but, “I remember the stories about it,” and the scent of the dish. His mother Miriam’s versions were different — less complex and healthier.
Yehuda started to experiment with his own take on the dish when he attended a kosher culinary school in Jerusalem after high school and lived in a house with his classmates. At the start of term, everyone in the house jockeyed to take charge of the cholent on Friday afternoon. “Everyone had to flex their muscles with the cholent,” Yehuda recalls. “Everyone thought they knew how to make it better.” After a couple of weeks, though, he took over, applying French culinary techniques to the recipe, adding wine and veal stock to the mix, soaking beans and browning the meat to draw out its flavor.
Three months into the program, Yehuda left and moved to Philadelphia, changing his relationship with Orthodox tradition, particularly kashrut. He worked his way through a series of the city’s then top restaurants including Brasserie Perrier. French dishes took the place of what he calls “shtibl” (the Yiddish word for a small gathering place for prayer) foods like cholent.
The dish returned to his life periodically as he settled into Philadelphia’s culinary scene. But, now, 12 years later, it has once again become a mainstay in his life at Abe Fisher, a modern Jewish restaurant owned by Zahav’s Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook, where Yehuda is chef. Early on, Yehuda says he knew he needed to add cholent to the menu. “We’d done the kugel thing, the kishke thing...these hard core old school Jewish food items,” he says. Cholent belonged in the mix. “When we talk about the cholent that stuff is like really Jewish,” he adds in his irreverent tone.
He knew he couldn’t, as he puts it, “just serve a bowl of cholent. I don’t think we could get away with that.” Inspired by Charlotte’s crust and challah kugel topper, he added puff pastry to make a cholent pot pie. The result is a modern play on a generations old dish that still rings clearly of tradition.
Through cooking and reinterpreting dishes like cholent, Yehudah says: “I’ve been really fortunate to find a connection to Judaism that I didn’t feel growing up….This is not only my connection to Judaism. This is my contribution to Judaism.”
Yehuda Sichel's Cholent Pot Pie
Time: 1 hour active time + 3 hours cooking + overnight soaking & resting
1 cup dried kidney beans
1 cup pearled barley
¾ pound boneless short ribs, cut into 2” cubes
½ pound kosher salami, cut into ½ ” cubes
1 large yellow onion, peeled and cut into 8 wedges
1 stalk of celery, sliced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 carrot, roughly chopped
¼ cup ketchup
½ cup red wine
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon hot smoked paprika
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 beef bouillon cube
6 cups water
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
1 sweet potato, cut into 1” cubes
1 Idaho potato, cut into 1” cubes
½ cup chopped parsley
Store-bought frozen puff pastry or pie dough
1 large egg, beaten
1. Combine the barley and kidney beans in a large bowl and cover with water by several inches. Soak overnight in the refrigerator. In the morning, drain and set aside.
2. Preheat the oven to 275°F. Heat one tablespoon of oil in a 4-quart dutch oven over
medium-high heat. Season the short ribs with salt and pepper, then add them to the pot and
brown on all sides, about 3 minutes per side. Remove the ribs from the dutch oven and set aside.
3. Add the salami to the pot and cook until brown, about 10 minutes. Remove the salami and set
aside. Add the onions, celery, garlic, carrot, and a small pinch of salt and cook, stirring
occasionally, until the vegetables have softened and are slightly browned, about 8 minutes.
4. Add the ketchup and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes until the mixture starts to bubble. Add the red wine and bring to a boil for 1-2 minutes to burn off the alcohol. Add the cumin, paprika, bouillon cube, water, and stir to combine.
5. Return to a boil and add the beans, barley, short ribs, rosemary and potatoes to the pot. The liquid in the stew should be just covering the meat. Remove excess liquid and add additional water as necessary. Cover the stew with a lid and place in the oven for about 3 hours or until the short ribs are fork tender. Let the stew cool, covered in its liquid, then refrigerate overnight.
6. The following day, preheat the oven to 400°F. Transfer the stew to a separate pot, add 1 cup of water or stock to loosen if necessary, then bring to a simmer. Taste and adjust for seasoning.
7. Pour the warm stew back into the cold dutch oven, sprinkle parsley over top, and drape a sheet of puff pastry over the sides of the dutch oven. Crimp the dough around the edges of the pot and trim away any excess. Brush the top of the puff pastry with egg wash and sprinkle with salt.
8. Place the stew in the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes until the pastry is golden brown. Let stand for 15 minutes, and serve.