Life & Culture

Giles Coren's ultimate Saturday night supper test of Jewish tastes

There was only 25 minutes to prep and cook a family dinner that would be ready and delicious in ten hours’ time


It is getting on for 9am on a Saturday morning and I am hustling Sam into his suit and yarmulke, making sure he’s got his little tallit bag and a clean pair of shoes, and preparing to drive to within a few hundred yards of the shul, where I will park up behind a tree and pretend to have walked all the way, when my wife, Esther…

Whoops, sorry, I accidentally described the wrong life, there.

Or, rather, the “sliding doors” version of own life (which I often think about) in which my parents did not gradually drift from the faith after they married, leaving me unbarmitzvah’d, Hebrewless and somewhat confused, but raised me up in the glorious tradition of my forebears, deeply imbued with the language, traditions and sense of identity.

Because what I was actually getting Sam ready for on the Saturday morning in question was football training in Regent’s Park, followed by the fortnightly trip to Queen’s Park Rangers for a 4-0 home drubbing by whomever was administering it that week.

And I was just packing his little blue and white Rangers scarf into his kit bag (so tallis-like, with its blue and white tzitzit) when my wife said, “OK, see you later, darling — you’re still doing supper, yes?”

“Eh, what, me?”

“You said you were on Wednesday night.’

“I did?”

“Yes, you did. And I reminded you about it yesterday. Nice big family meal when we all get back from our various things tonight.”

“What am I cooking?’

“I don’t know. You said I should leave it to you.”

“You mean you haven’t even shopped?”

“Nope. Bye! Have fun at the football. Love you!”

Slam! And they were gone.

So now I had 25 minutes to shop, prep and cook a meal that was going to be ready and delicious in ten hours’ time. Impossible!

Except not.. Because it is in a moment of crisis that race memory kicks in and a man descended through 100 generations of Ashkenazi shtetl dweller, thinks: cholent!

“Sam, here’s 40 quid, run up to the butcher and get me a rolled brisket of beef.”

“What? Now? But it’s football in…’

“I know, I know. But if you go now, and run, we’ll be just about OK. Please. Otherwise Mum’ll kill me.”

“OK, fine. So a bristly what?”

“A brisket of beef, Sam. Big as they’ve got. Probably be about two kilos. If they haven’t got a rolled one, get it naked and I’ll roll it. If they haven’t got brisket, get shin.”

“What if they haven’t got shin?”

“If they haven’t got shin then we’re completely … I dunno, get its head or something. Oh, and ask Michael for a couple of marrow bones if he’s got them. But don’t pay. They should be free.”

And off he ran.

Alone in the house, I switched the oven to 120C, put olive oil in the biggest casserole and the widest frying pan, and lit a quiet flame under each.

Then, from the larder: three onions, chopped and into the casserole; six garlic cloves, peeled and into the casserole whole. Lid on, to sweat down but not brown.

Meantime, from the larder: a bag of dried haricot beans, damn, no haricots, okay then cannellini, basically the same thing. Now, some people will want to soak these overnight. But we don’t have overnight.

And I take the same view with a cholent as Elizabeth David does with a cassoulet (which is the rural French, treif-riddled, pork and duck bastardisation of the “one true cholent”), which is that an overnight soak is not necessary if the cook time is properly slow and low. Claudia Roden advises at least an hour’s soak in her The Book of Jewish Food, but even an hour we do not have.

So I rinse about 400g of the beans for dust, drain and put them aside, then go digging for pearl barley, which we also luckily have.

By now the vegetables are soft enough for today’s purposes — where the hell IS that boy with the meat? — so I toss about 250g (or “two big fistfuls” in old money) of the barley in with them to give them a little start (which my mum always used to do, because her mum did), and then I go looking for Hungarian paprika.

Now, Hungarian paprika, my Hungarian grandma always claimed, is superior to Spanish because it retains its red colour when cooked.

But I’ve never tested that in a lab and as my grandma thought everything Hungarian was better, it’s possible that it’s pure b*llocks.

And anyway, I couldn’t find any, so I tossed in what we had, which might have been Peruvian, for all I know. Or Irish. But it does the job.

Claudia has paprika down in her recipe, I recall, as optional, but I don’t know what the hell dish she thinks she’s cooking there.

Cholent, as far as I am concerned, is primarily a vehicle for paprika. Without paprika, it is but a bean stew. (Claudia also thinks you put potatoes in a cholent, which is pure madness. And there are even people, she says, who put eggs in it. Eggs!).

Speaking of which (for I made him, at least partly, with an egg) where is that ruddy boy?
Ding dong!

“Hey, Dad.”

“Hey, son. You got the brisket?”

“No, sorry, Dad, they were all out of beef so I got a halibut.”

“You got a… WHAT?”

“Only kidding, Dad. I got a brisket, 2.5kg. Also two marrow bones, but Michael said you had to pay for them, I think like a pound or something, but he felt bad so gave you some rib bones for nothing. He says if you rest the beef on top of the…”

“Yeah, I don’t need Michael’s cooking tips, thanks, son, chuck ‘em here.”

With seven minutes left until the absolute last second we can leave for football, still park legally and get to the pitch before they start, I lob the lovely rolled brisket (nice and fatty) into the smoking empty frying pan to brown.

While it browns, I add the beans to the barley and bury the four bare rib bones at the bottom and sprinkle it all with sea salt.

Then I retrieve the browned beef (three minutes is enough, rolling it occasionally to get a good colour) and push it down into the beans until it finds its place, resting on those ribs.

The two stubby marrowbones I place at either end of the meat to fit snugly against the pot. Then I fill a jug from the tap and pour it into the pot until the meat is almost completely covered.

Then I cover the pot with a sheet of tin foil (for a hermetic seal and other ancestral reasons that I will come to), plonk the lid on top, stick it in the oven and say, “right, Sammy, let’s go”.

“What, have you made dinner?” says Sam.

“Sure have,” I say. “And it is the best dinner you will ever have eaten. Come on. Get your boot bag. I’ll explain on the way.”

And so as we headed to the park, I explained about the sabbath, and not kindling a flame, and how in the old days, the Jews of Middle and Eastern Europe, such as great-grampa

Harry, were not allowed to cook their lunch on Saturday so their mum had to put all the ingredients in a pot well before sundown on Friday and then take it down to the baker, where he would have turned the ovens off for the sabbath too, and ask him to put it in the oven as it cooled overnight, so that it would be ready in the morning after shul.

And I also told him about the mum putting a pastry membrane between the pot and the lid, both for a hermetic seal and also to twist into a special shape that the family could recognise, to distinguish it from all the other cholents in there, when the kids went to pick it up on the way home from the synagogue. Which is what I do, always, with the foil. In memory.

“What, you’re telling me the whole village ate cholent?”

I said that was extremely possible but I could not say for sure.

And we talked about how this was Saturday now, so it was Shabbat, and of all the times I could have made him his first cholent this was literally the naughtiest. It was totally illegal and God would be furious.

But we agreed it was a very convenient solution to our own little Saturday cooking problem, and wouldn’t Mum and Kitty be pleased when they got home?

We got to Regent’s Park on time, and Sam did his thing. And then we grabbed some lunch at Nando’s and headed over to Loftus Road, to our usual seats, where we watched Blackburn Rovers (on this occasion) slaughter us 4-0.

And as we drove home, I told Sam all about not opening the pot until it was on the table so all the steam came rushing out and you got the smell of it right there.

Back home, while I laid the table, Sam told all of this to Kitty, who was not remotely interested. Except by the part where “Dad says it’s a test of whether you’re Jewish — basically only Jews like cholent and everyone else thinks it’s disgusting.”

“Apart from Mum,” I said. “But I think she only says she likes it because she likes me”.

And then I lifted the lid and I got the smell of it from when my own mother used to make it (although she served it with a separately roasted fillet because she found stewing beef chewy and bland) and her mum before her and all those mums before them, going way back, with their hereditary cholent pots and their short, burdensome lives.

Except I served it with a 2014 Chambolle-Musigny to make up for the misery of the football.

And then Sam stuck his fork in, loaded up a mouthful, chewed for a bit, swallowed, and said,

“Yup, I am definitely Jewish.”

And Kitty said, “me too”.

And as I swilled the delicious burgundy in my glass at the head of the table, and took a big slug, it was all I could do not to raise it to the room and say: “And a merry Shabbos

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