Needed: Five-quart crock pot or dutch oven.
So I ended up with a quart of glorious broth. I hunted for a good recipe in which to use it. I liked the idea of a hearty main-course bean soup at this time of year, so I thumbed through a popular cookbook I own for the slow cooker (of which Rival makes the best-known brand, called a "Crock Pot," now the generic term for that appliance).
I found a recipe in this cookbook for "cholent," a traditional European-Jewish bean-and-barley stew, served on Shabbat. In observant homes, this dish was placed over lit coals late the day before Shabbat, and cooked in the dwindling embers until the following midday, after services. This long-cooking was to prevent believers from having to engage in work on the "day of rest," including the work of lighting a kitchen-fire. The soup lent itself well to slow cooking in the modern, every-day crock pot. I was charmed. I wanted to make it. Then I read more closely. What I found is below.
As is true of too many recipes in this nameless book, this one relies on ready-compiled flavoring ingredients. In this case, the recipe called for a store-bought soup-mix, one that contained the additive monosodium glutamate, "MSG."
Now, MSG derives from seaweed. It's made in a laboratory, to enhance the flavor of food. It's ubiquitous in mass-produced convenience foods, under such ingredient names as "hydrolyzed vegetable protein" and "modified food starch."
The presence of this additive in food troubles me for two reasons. The first is that MSG likely affects human health. It seems to cause short-term disturbances like headaches and flushing in some people. Its heavy use also results in long-term, repeat human exposure to the molecule, with effects difficult to quantify in the population, but which possibly include weight-gain, and other undesired outcomes. The second reason MSG-use troubles me, is the hard questions that arise about reasons for its widespread presence in food. Why does food's flavor so commonly need "goosing" to begin with?
The tradition of disguising or enhancing inferior food to pass it off as being more expensive has roots in antiquity, with elaborate Roman wine-making practices. Generally, wine from commoner dark grapes was the wine of the lower classes and slaves. Wine from more-expensive lighter grapes was reserved for aristocrats. But winemakers engineered their product so wine from darker grapes would look and perhaps taste as if it came from lighter grapes. That appealed to social pretension, for the need of lower-class people to drink what "high-class" concoction they could afford.
American society, though, is without formal class distinctions. What tastes good to one, tastes good to all, and food manufacturers, at the lowest possible cost, want to sell what people will buy. Notwithstanding, if a mass-produced convenience food needs MSG to taste good, I fear it may be a sign we have no business eating that food, in the first place. Besides the excessive salt, those chips and that frozen dinner are likely to contain low-grade, questionably-sourced ingredients that cause and abet various kinds of human disease and dysfunction in society.
Although my anti-MSG bias extends to home cooking—to sympathize with the editors of the cholent recipe—some foundational ingredients in home cooking are naturally drab. Beans, for instance, sop up salt and seasonings like crazy as they simmer, and if you want them to taste like anything but mush, you can't mess around. It isn't a matter of artfully spicing an already-flavorful food to set it off; you have to scheme to "goose" the taste of the homely legume. The exact same is true of less-expensive cuts of beef. Even from animals raised in healthy conditions, these tend to be tough, bland, or both. Home cooks have long recognized this. I have a recipe for beef stew, from a fairly "classy" source, where red wine is the only added liquid, and the stew also contains ingredients like "pancetta." Well, the recipe calls for common "stew beef," and for "worcestershire sauce." The latter is a fermented anchovy-based sauce sold specifically to enhance the taste of savory recipes. (The most popular brand these days, unfortunately, also contains MSG.)
Now, back to the cholent. I had my heart set on it, since I'd hardly have to buy anything to make it. It was hearty; if done right, it promised to be tasty. The long-cooking interested me, since I believe many ingredient-combinations only realize their full flavor potential this way. More philosophically, the soup evolved in old Europe because of the recognition, common to many spiritual traditions, that regular, sacred rest offset the effort and trouble of living well. Life couldn't be about the quest of ease or convenience.
I Googled "cholent" to see what other recipes for it I could find.
The New York Times to the rescue! This delicious, simple cholent, is made from whole, natural foods, with attention paid to those ingredients with muted flavors at risk of fading out in the final dish. Honey flavors meat and beans, although only as an accent; you won't add enough that eaters register its taste it as "sweet." In my version, abundant salt and olive oil also boost the soup's flavor. (For a vegan dish, omit the meat, use vegetable stock, and use molasses instead of honey. To make the dish healthier, reduce salt and oil.)
What follows is my adaptation of New York Times cholent:
Prep time: 12-15 hours
5-6 whole small red potatoes
1 large onion, cut into ½-inch slices
2-3 large garlic cloves, minced
1.5 pounds stew beef, cut into 1-1/2 pieces
1 cup dried pearl barley, sorted and rinsed
1 cup dried lentils, sorted and rinsed
1 cup dried lima beans, sorted and rinsed
1 quart beef or chicken stock
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon of salt, more if your broth is unsalted
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons paprika
ground pepper to taste
1.) Combine all ingredients in the crock pot or dutch oven, layering the potatoes, beef, onion, garlic, beans, chicken stock, other liquid ingredients, then salt, pepper, and paprika.
2.) Set the crock pot on "low," or set the oven or stove on a very low flame and position the dutch oven to absorb the heat. Let the let the soup cook for 12-15 hours. You should see light bubbling. If your crock pot runs hot, as mine does, then please stir the soup every so often, as you're able, so it won't burn.
3.) Dilute with water, as needed, and serve in bowls or big mugs. Goes great with a steamed green vegetable and crusty bread.