Cholent is truly a Jewish food. Jewish communities around the world prepare it specially for Shabbat, each with its own variation in name and ingredients. Also called dafina or skinha (Morocco) and hamin (Sephardic in general), the common thread of cholent recipes are that each is slowly cooked overnight so that it’s ready for Shabbat lunch. You cannot cook cholent quickly in a microwave or pressure cooker. It is a long process, and like Shabbat, it requires one to slow down from the rapid pace of weekday life. And no matter what goes into it, cholent is usually so hearty and filling that a Shabbat meal can be complete with it and nothing else.
Fortunately, as people’s diets evolve to consume less meat, vegan cholent is increasingly common at Shabbat meals. I have eaten every imaginable type of vegan cholent, from one made with vegan kishke (derma) that was consumed on a sultry Shabbat afternoon in Los Angeles to a crispy, browned cholent eaten on a blustery damp Jerusalem winter day.
I even had cholent at an Israeli-run ashram on an island in the Caribbean, where I had to explain to fellow guests in the buffet food line what “hamin,” listed on the menu board, was. (They all loved it.) Eating Moroccan-spiced cholent while sitting on a hammock under palm trees with yogis from around the globe certainly made for a one-of-a-kind experience.
I skipped the meat cholent at a Shabbat meal in Fes, but was given a heaping platter of the dish’s creamy spicy beans and rice, cooked separately for me. I have had veggie cholent in Tel Aviv that was prepared buffet style—with ingredients cooked separately so that each diner make his or her own (and avoid certain ingredients, such as, in my case, all the meat that had been prepared).
I have written before about “veganizing” traditional Jewish foods. Cholent lends itself well to this, as the rich flavors and ingredients make it easy to forego meat entirely.
Eating vegan cholent on Shabbat brings Jewish ethics and values—including the prevention of cruelty to animals (tsar ba’alei chayim), protection of the environment and treating workers with dignity—to your table. Jewish values are incompatible with our current industrial food system, where annually 10 billion animals are raised and slaughtered in grotesque, inhumane industrial farms known as CAFOs (98% of all animals slaughtered for kosher meat comes from them). Judaism challenges us to do mitzvot and live to the highest ethical standards every day.
As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hersh explained, “Here you are faced with God’s teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours.”
Every time you opt not to eat meat, you significantly reduce your carbon emissions, save the life of an animal, improve your own health, avoid contributing to an industrial food system that impoverishes workers and help the environment.
I can think of nothing more fitting for Shabbat than a long afternoon meal of cozy, hearty vegan cholent with family and friends, no matter where you might be in the world.
I use a lot of cremini mushrooms in my recipe, but any type of mushroom works to bring a rich, savory flavor to this dish. I also try to use the tastiest and most interesting beans available, many of them heirlooms from a California company called Rancho Gordo. You can use any type of dried beans; in fact, a mixture adds different colors, flavors and textures to the dish. For this recipe, I used a colorful assortment of Rancho Gordo’s Alubia Blanco (white), Domingo Rojo (red), Vaquero (black and white), Flagolet (green) and Azu Frado (yellow).
I add a whole onion, which ends up falling apart, but is a good symbolic replacement for whole eggs, which are commonly used in meat cholent. The vegan sausage is an optional addition for those who want a meat substitute in texture and flavor. The kind I use (Field Roast brand) are made primarily with wheat and herbs.
- 3–4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium white or yellow onion, chopped
- 5 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 teaspoon maple syrup
- 1 large pint mushrooms (3–4 cups), chopped
- 6–8 medium red potatoes, sliced
- 1–3 vegan sausages, sliced (optional)
- 1–1½ cups farro or barley
- 2–2½ cups mixture of dried beans* (no need to soak them)
- 3 tablespoons parsley, chopped
- 1½ cups vegetable broth
- 4–5 cups water
- 1 white or yellow onion, peeled, but kept whole
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Heat a large pot, such as cast iron pot with a lid, over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add chopped onion and sauté until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Add garlic, mushrooms, maple syrup and a bit more olive oil (about ½ to 1 tablespoon). Mix well and cook for about five minutes until brown and fragrant.
- Add potatoes, sausages (if using), farro, beans and parsley. Mix well and cook for a few minutes. Then pour in water and broth. Mix well and bring to a boil. Let simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes. Add whole onion and salt and pepper to taste. Add another tablespoon of olive oil. Mix well.
- Transfer all of the ingredients to a slow cooker on a low temperature, or put the cast iron pot in an oven heated to between 170 and 250 degrees (I did this at 170 degrees for 8 hours and then raised the temperature for 2 more hours). Cook it in the oven for a minimum of 8 hours. There should be plenty of liquid, but periodically check and add water and stir, as needed. It is ready when it is a thick stew mixture, without too much liquid. The temperature range is based on whether or not you will be able to check on the dish—that is, if you cannot check on it regularly during the 8 to 12 cooking hours, it’s best to cook it at a lower temperature to prevent drying and burning of the ingredients.