Stewing in the District with Vered Guttman

Vered Guttman. Photo courtesy of Vered Guttman

By Susan C. Ingram

Vered Guttman is no stranger to comfort food. She grew up in Israel, learning cooking at the elbows of her Iraqi and Polish grandmothers. In Washington, she’s known for her skills as an Israeli fusion chef and food writer eager to share the cuisine and recipes of her Jewish and ethnic roots. She has written for major publications, including the Washington Post, and has cooked for the White House.

And at Sixth & I Synagogue recently, she shared her penchant for Shabbat slow-cooked stews — the perfect, comforting antidote for stressful times and dark winter days — with a virtual audience.

Guttman offered up three stews that cook low and slow (about 225 degrees), overnight in the oven:

• Persian Haleem (or khalabibi) — an ancient dish of barley, wheat, meat and cinnamon

• Hamin macaroni — a Sephardi recipe from Jerusalem of pasta and chicken

• Stuffed veggies — stuffed turnip, potatoes, baby eggplant and Swiss chard

Shabbat overnight stews are an ancient tradition that originated as a way for observant Jews to comply with Jewish laws prohibiting work, including cooking, on the Sabbath. But the stews (many variations are known as cholent) are enjoyed across the Diaspora — flavored and seasoned by cultural influences — whether people are strictly observant, or not.

“It’s really something that I love. Those Shabbat stews or dishes, that you cook overnight…were a necessity throughout the Jewish world because Jews were not allowed to, are not allowed, according to kashrut laws, to cook on Shabbat,” Guttman said. “Yet they want to have a tasty, warm, heavy, nice meal on Shabbat.

“Each community in the Jewish world, in the Diaspora, found their own recipe and dish that could be left on low heat overnight and be served on Shabbat. We have the origins of these stews. It’s just amazing. It can’t be more Jewish. Usually these are unique dishes, unique to the Jews in that community. And for Israelis like me, we were lucky to grow up with all of them.”

Guttman started the evening of cooking with a Persian Haleem, what she called “one of the simplest Shabbat overnight stews.” Haleem is an ancient dish popular in Iran and India, made with wheat and meat cooked overnight until the meat is very tender. And although it is traditionally served like porridge for breakfast, Guttman’s version using wheatberries, lamb shoulder, barley and onions, is more like a stew. The dish is seasoned with kosher salt, black pepper and cinnamon.

Bucatini pasta layered with sauteed onions and browned chicken, flavored with tomato paste, cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg, was the next dish offered. Whole eggs in the shell are nestled in between the chicken pieces. Potato slices line the bottom of the pot, to keep pasta from overcooking.

“The eggs are going to be cooking all night, together with the dish,” Guttman said. “In Israel, it doesn’t matter which community you’re from, where your ancestors are from, which diaspora you’re from, everyone adds some eggs to their [overnight stew]. The eggs, they cook overnight, are hard-cooked eggs, they become brown in color and the yolk becomes so creamy. It’s just unbelievable. It’s so good.”

Guttman’s last recipe was a vegetarian dish made with vegetables scooped out and stuffed with a mixture of sushi rice and vegan ground “beef,” flavored with tomato paste, onion, garlic, parsley, lemon juice, dried mint and salt and pepper. After the veggies (turnips, potatoes, eggplant and Swiss chard) are stuffed with the “meat” and rice mixture, they are topped with a sauce made from vegan broth and pomegranate molasses.

All of the dishes were assembled in Dutch ovens with tight-fitting lids, or heavy pots sealed with parchment paper and aluminum foil, and cooked at 200 to 225 degrees, 6-8 hours, or overnight.

“I hope you will try these dishes. They are so delicious,” Guttman said. “The whole process is, you’re working hard on the eve of Shabbat and then you put it in the oven — and you’re done. And by midnight the house is already filled with such a strong smell of delicious food, it’s really hard to stay focused and fall asleep. I just love it.

“These are all just wonderful. I really recommend trying them and get them into your rotation in the winter, especially.”

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