Holy smoke! Rabbi has a way with cholent
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Following the scent of smoked ribs, brisket, and cholent wafting through the entryway of Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David on a recent Friday, a visitor found Rabbi Adam Gindea in the West Orange synagogue’s kitchen. He pulled a giant vat out of the oven; inside, beef, beans, barley, potatoes, and some “secret ingredients” were stewing and marrying their flavors.
Outside, on the synagogue’s patio, two large smokers, now with bare shelves, were cooking off their remaining smoke after ribs, brisket, and chicken had spent up to 18 hours inside, until the beef had reached fall-completely-off-the-bone-and-melt-in-your-mouth goodness.
Once a month, as the chef and entrepreneur behind the Chosen Cholent and Smokehouse, Gindea offers a meat cholent, vegetarian cholent, and his smoked goods for pickup at AABJ&D, to which he donates the proceeds.
For his October pickup, he cooked 21 pounds of cholent, 28 pounds of brisket, 15 pounds of ribs, and 18 chickens.
Gindea — who received rabbinic ordination from Rav Daniel Channen through Yeshiva Pirchei Shoshanim, based in Israel — said he’s been making cholent “forever.” He got his start while a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Albert A. List College program.
“In college, cooking for Shabbos was a big thing, and cholent was the big one,” he said of the traditional Sabbath stew. “Freshman year we had a dorm competition for the best cholent. I won that 10 years ago — but it was just among friends.”
It wasn’t until he won a much bigger competition that he thought to take his culinary skills to the wider community. In February 2014, the self-taught cook entered a cholent contest sponsored by Gourmet Glatt, the Brooklyn grocery store. The two-day event — a benefit for Masbia, a New York City soup kitchen network — included 16 cholents, by both home cooks and professional chefs and caterers.
“I thought, OMG, there’s no reason I’m here. This will be an embarrassing, terrible story I will tell my kids some day,” recalled Gindea, a Judaics instructor and tefilla coordinator at Golda Och Academy in West Orange.
He acknowledged that he didn’t even have a set recipe that day beyond the main ingredients, and still doesn’t. “It evolves and changes from week to week,” he said. “That’s why I like cooking, and not baking.”
Nevertheless, Gindea managed to sweep the competition. At the end of the event, he was crowned the winner.
Cholent is a stew, cooked over a low flame for hours. It usually includes beans, meat, and often potatoes and barley. There are as many variations as there are families, and there are both Ashkenazi and Sephardi versions.
The dish dates back to the Jerusalem Talmud, where it was called hamin, meaning a stew cooked slowly in a pit. It was designed specifically to provide a hot meal on Shabbat. Placed on a fire kindled before the start of Shabbat, when lighting a flame is prohibited, it cooks overnight and till the mid-day mealtime. According to Beans: A History by Ken Albala, published in 2007, the original hamin would have consisted of fava beans. It “traveled everywhere Jews did,” according to Albala, including Iraq, North Africa, Spain, and, of course, Eastern Europe. Albala quotes the Jewish-born German poet Heinrich Heine: “This cholent is the very food of heaven, which on Sinai, God himself instructed Moses in the secret of preparing.”
After winning the Masbia contest, Gindea agreed to provide his cholent, if not his secret ingredients, for an AABJ&D men’s club fund-raiser. Gindea is an AABJ&D member and men’s club president.
That fund-raiser was so successful that the shul invested in a smoker, because, as Gindea put it, “cholent is not even the best thing I do!” In short order, he added smoked ribs, pulled brisket, and whole chicken to his offerings.
He learned to smoke food in Israel, when he first came across Jews practicing the technique. He recalled his reaction: “Get out! Jews don’t do that!” Throughout the process, he explained, the cook has to monitor the temperature of the grill and the internal temperature of the meat. “You have to care for it and keep an eye on it. You can’t just throw it in a crockpot and be done. If I had to guess, I’d say that’s what makes it so good.”
He does all of his cooking at AABJ&D, and The Chosen Cholent and Smokehouse is under the kashrut supervision of the Vaad Harabonim of MetroWest.
He created his own logo — a cartoon version of himself with a pot of cholent that appears on the stickers placed on each package. The Chosen Cholent and Smokehouse is still being offered only for fund-raisers, but in just four or five months, it’s grown rapidly. The first week, Gindea received “four or five orders,” just for cholent. Now on the Friday pickup days, there’s a steady stream of customers.
“I’m at a point where I have to figure out my next move. I’m maxing out on the smokers I use in the space I have,” he said.
For now, said Gindea, who lives in West Orange with his wife, Jessica, and their six-month-old daughter, Charlie Ruby, he will keep his day job. “I don’t plan now to stop teaching, but I don’t know where this might lead. It’s an exciting time for me,” he said, acknowledging that he is considering the possibility of turning the enterprise into a business.
Orders can be placed through the website thechosencholent.com. November orders must be placed by Monday, Nov. 9, and picked up at AABJ&D on Friday, Nov. 13, at designated hours, usually mid-afternoon, before Shabbat. Customers should check the website for future dates.