Looking at the similarities between cholent and cassoulet, I think cholent gave birth to cassoulet as cooks and housewives in medieval France (or Aquitaine or Languedoc) took cholent from its specifically Jewish roots and absorbed it into the regional gastronomic culture of southwestern France.
Before Columbus brought beans from the Americas back to Europe, our common bean - Phaseolus vulgaris - was found only in the Americas. While chickpeas and lentils were available, a "bean" in pre-Columban Europe typically meant a fava bean. Both cholent and cassoulet are old dishes, and each was originally made with fava beans, the first important point of a shared past. Cholent is enriched by beef bones and meat, while cassoulet relies on a variety of meats, ranging from lamb or sausage to preserved duck and goose. Beef is the only meat not usually associated with cassoulet, and I wonder if that’s deliberate? Did non-Jews look at cholent and substitute other meats to make a point that they weren’t preparing a Jewish dish? In times of anti-Semitism or explicit persecution of Jews, adding a piece of confited pork would make a visible statement about one's dietary restrictions. Cholent was also made on occasion with lamb, an important meat throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East.
Cholent used to be made in a pot and sealed with a flour and water paste to keep in moisture. That’s identical to the medieval French daubiere, a slow-cooking clay pot with a raised lip that allows a flour-water paste to seal the pot completely. Cholent was always started on Friday and cooked in a low oven or placed at the edge of the fire and covered with hot ashes through the night and into Saturday, allowing Jews to eat a hot meal on the Sabbath without having to cook or light a fire.
I made cholent last week, piecing together fragments of recipes old and new. I started with fava beans, the small dark ones – minor types – known sometimes as horse beans or tick beans. After soaking them I added a meaty beef bone, onions, garlic, potatoes, and salt and pepper. I also added a small rack of lamb ribs and before the stew went into the oven I carefully slipped a few eggs into the mixture. I poured water and turkey broth over the beans and meat, and put the lidded, cast iron pot into a 200 degree oven.
When I pulled the cholent from the oven late Saturday afternoon, the long-simmered stew smelled beautiful in its hues of onion, brown, beef and lamb. I pulled out the eggs, whose white shells had turned tan during the long night of cooking, and cracked one open. A caramel-colored white steamed pleasantly and the now-hard egg left stains of taste on my now-tingling tongue. A bit of lamb fat floated on the surface and the plumped beans nestled with beef and translucent onions.
Cholent shares the same architecture but lacks the complexity of taste we find in a traditional cassoulet; as I prepared it, I thought it was a simpler dish. But it’s not hard to see how Jewish cooks laid the foundation for what we now think of as a quintessential French dish, and I’m going to keep exploring the connection between these two living cultural treasures of Jewish and French cookery.
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