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Overnight cooking: The time to pull an all-nighter

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By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I missed Washington's double-whammy snow-in. I wasn't here, for one thing, but as much as friends and colleagues envied my elsewhere existence, I wish I'd been here to cook in it.

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From afar, food chatter during those days came across as anxious and unsettled. What was left in the stores? What could be done without electricity? Housebound bakers went into overdrive, while dieters felt threatened by their stashes of premium ice cream. Families cobbled together unorthodox meals or escaped to restaurants that were hungry for their business.

Here's what I would have done, and what you ought to try before the spring thaw: Set the oven at 225 degrees, go to bed and let the magic of very low, very slow food fill the senses.

I'm talking about cooking that transforms. It's as old as the hills and has roots in just about every nation on Earth. It goes beyond extreme braising in three or four hours: Vegetables collapse into pudding, meats achieve a succulence that makes chewing optional, and natural sugars triumph over the shape of the fruits that contain them. Even the yolks of whole eggs slowly baked in the shell take on a supernatural quality.

These days, a gas range with a trusty autopilot can do the work of village ovens and ancient clay pots buried in embers. (I respectfully submit that the electric slow cooker, on the other hand, performs reliably but yields results that fall short of inspirational.) The key ingredient is time -- just the kind you have when events are canceled and snowplows rumble in the distance. There is something wonderful about waking up to, or spending all day with, deeply savory smells that seem to have come about on their own.

Orthodox Jews are well versed in the ways of overnight cooking, as they are not permitted to do many kinds of work on the Sabbath. They have developed hundreds of recipes for one-pot stews, referred to as cholents or dafinas depending on what part of the world they're in.

The dishes are constructed in advance with minimal fuss and reheated in a way that does not interfere with Shabbat observance, says Brooklyn's Arthur Schwartz, a.k.a. the Food Maven, former food editor of the New York Daily News and author, most recently, of "The Southern Italian Table."

"Cooking in low heat for a long, long time is how I do all my braises now," he says. "When you cook meat that slowly, it really becomes as tender as meat could ever be. I just like the process." Schwartz uses beef cheeks, which become quite gelatinous, for a cholent he makes with potatoes, barley, big lima beans, onions and garlic. He collects antique copper and regrets passing up a recent opportunity to buy a copper cholent pot inscribed in Hebrew with a family name. "They would have taken the pot to a communal oven so that it could be warmed in the residual heat after the morning baking was done," he says.

The moist meats of barbacoa remain some of Mexico's most famous and popular slow-cooked foods, done for centuries in underground pits built of stone, brick or wood. Meat traditionally was covered with adobo, then wrapped in maguey leaves (from an agave plant or cactus) before being placed atop a mixture of beer (or pulque, a traditional alcoholic drink), herbs and vegetables in an earthenware pot. The meat's juices fell into the vegetables during cooking. The whole shebang might be sealed with a corn-dough masa. Today Mexican cooks may use banana leaves but still most often let the cooking happen overnight.

Chinese dishes that took all night to cook date back thousands of years and often had medicinal properties. They were true comfort food; when someone in the house was sick, a mixture including beef, berries, dried fruits or vegetables would bake for hours in a clay pot (never metal) until it was reduced to a thick soup. Michael Chin, a senior executive of the Fireman Hospitality Group in New York, remembers his grandmother and parents making such concoctions even when he was growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s and '60s.

"From two quarts, the stuff would boil down to almost a cupful," he says. "If it contained rare herbs and was meant for someone who was trying to recover his or her strength, the smell could be -- 'ooof!' But it always seemed to work. I don't doubt 5,000 years of Chinese medicine."

Sweetened meringues that were crafted for King Louis XIV in France needed the warmth of a low oven and long hours of residual drying heat. Today, an enterprising chef such as, say, Bryan Voltaggio prefers the precision of a whiz-bang dehydrator. He uses one at Volt, his restaurant in Frederick.

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