A few weeks ago, or is it months, Silverjay asked me to post my mother's recipe for Bigos, which is translated from Polish to English as "Hunter's Stew" by most restaurants. I didn't forget you, Silverjay! I've spent all this time trying to convince my mother to tell me! She kept responding with an evasive "Bigos is an art!" speech.
Bigos is to Poles what madelines were to Proust, in fact in Polish literature there is a similarly effusive Proustian passage about bigos in Adam Mickiewicz's famous 19th Century epic poem Pan Tadeusz. It's not a stew that most Americans would recognize as such, it's mostly based on sauerkraut, and it's one of those "little of this, little of that" recipes that changes slightly with the contents of your pantry. It's impossible to make just a little Bigos, you must make a big pot of it and either feed an army or freeze some for another time. It's evolved into a day after Christmas tradition in Poland. There are as many recipes for Bigos as there are Poles in Poland, this is just one of them...
The first thing to keep in mind when you decide to make Bigos, is that you must be sure of the quality of your sauerkraut. It must must must be a truly fermented, German-style sauerkraut, if it's a sauerkraut that gets all its sourness from vinegar, your Bigos will be awful. (For New Yorkers: I have found good sauerkraut from Polam on Manhattan Ave in Greenpoint. They keep it in buckets in front of the butcher cases and you have to put it in plastic produce bags with tongs.)
Also bear in mind that you're not going to eating your Bigos until about two days after you start the process...maybe one day if you're impatient.
Meat for veal stew
Pork shoulder (cubed)
Meat for beef stew
Onions, rough chopped
Dried Polish mushrooms (soaked, reserving the strained soaking liquid)
Boczek (Polish pork belly, like salt pork or slab bacon), chopped into pieces
Polish sausage (I like krajana sausage from Sikorski Meat Market), chopped into pieces
Stock cubes (not actual stock, too much liquid)
Some tomato paste
(For an idea of quantities and proportions: about a half pound of each kind of stew meat, 2 pounds of sauerkraut, maybe three onions, a good handful of dried mushrooms, half a two foot link of Polish sausage, a small-ish piece of boczek...nothing is really exact here, sorry)
In a very large pot over high heat brown all your meats in batches until they are just sealed (not the sausage or the boczek), and set aside. Don't cook the meats through because they have a long time to spend cooking and if you take them too far at this early stage, they'll fall to shreds long before you're done. Add the rough chopped onion and the sauerkraut to the pot and just barely cover with water, it shouldn't be "floating" in the water, it should just look saturated. Bring to a simmer, turn the heat way down and add all your meats, the boczek, the sausage, the mushrooms and the strained soaking liquid, the stock cubes, everything but the red wine. Simmer on very low heat for at least an hour and a quarter. Take a peak and a stir at it every now and again.
After an hour and a quarter or so, come back to the pot and add a cup of decent red wine. Poles don't really know their wines at all, but I'd recommend something from a nearby region, a good bodied German or Austrian wine with soft tannins, rather than a very fruit forward wine with lots of acidity. At this point if you want to (we don't in my house), you can add a little tomato paste and about 10 whole pitted prunes. Stir for a bit, keep the heat low, and let it go for another couple of hours, you could even go three hours.
At this point, turn off the heat, cover the pot, and put it in a cool place overnight. My Babcia would do this on her balcony. In the morning put it back on the stove, bring it all back to a simmer and cook it for another 2 or 3 hours. You COULD eat it at this point, we often do. But my mother says you could repeat the overnight cooling and 2 hour simmer the following day and it gets even better.
It's a tricky balance between adding just enough water, and cooking the water off and replacing it. If for any reason your Bigos seems too watery at the end of cooking you can try and fix it with one pureed potato, but you'll have to be careful and watch that it doesn't burn when you continue to cook it. The potato starch tends to sink to the bottom of the pot and burn the pot. It's not ideal, but it's one fix it option if you need it.
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