I decided to go festive with my annual hosting of book club this year by serving a traditional Polish recipe — bigos (hunter’s stew) — a dish said to be close to 700-years old. The topic of the evening was The Lilac Girls (highly recommend), a WWII- era book taking place in America, Poland and France. During the course of the story, one of the main characters serves the stew at her wedding — hence my inspiration.
After researching a bit, I landed on this version of the stew from Simply Recipes as my starting point and put my own flare on the recipe with a few minor variations. Besides the many steps and laundry list of ingredients, many of which were not exactly norms on our typical shopping list, the actual creation of the meal was relatively easy. And, the result was well worth the effort as my book club friends loved it. Bonus points for the fiance’s coworkers stopping by to inquire about the delicious smells coming from his bowl when he brought it as his lunch the next day.
There are two primary versions of the stew, one using a tomato base and the other prunes. I decided to scrap both and instead chose wine as a liquid (you can use vegetable broth as an alternative). I also used a slow cooker for the main cooking once all of the ingredients were prepared, which I’ve noted below. Oh, and this recipe makes A LOT of stew. I used a 5-quart slow cooker and had to wait an hour or two until the ingredients cooked down enough to allow the lid and top of the cooker to actually meet.
- 1 ounce dried porcini or other wild mushrooms
- 2 Tbsp bacon fat
- 2 pounds pork shoulder
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 head cabbage (regular, not savoy or red), chopped
- 1 1/2 pounds mixed fresh mushrooms
- 1.5 pounds kielbasa
- 1 smoked ham hock
- 1 pound fresh Polish sausage
- 1 25-ounce jar of fresh sauerkraut (I used Bubbies as recommended, but any simple brined sauerkraut will work. If you can’t find this variety and must a vinegared version, rinse and watch it many times to remove the vinegar taste.)
- 16 ounces red wine
- 1 Tbsp black peppercorns
- 1 Tbsp caraway seeds
- 2 Tbsp dried marjoram
- 1-2 Tbsp mustard or horseradish (optional)
- 1 loaf rye bread
Pour hot tap water over the dried mushrooms and submerge them for 20-40 minutes, or until soft. Grind or crush the black peppercorns roughly. Cut the pork shoulder into 1-inch chunks. Cut the sausages into similar-sized chunks. Drain the sauerkraut and set aside. Clean off any dirt from the mushrooms and cut them into large pieces; leave small ones whole.
Heat the bacon fat in a large lidded pot for a minute or two. Working in batches if necessary, brown the pork shoulder over medium-high heat. Set the browned meat aside.
Put the onion and fresh cabbage into the pot and sauté for a few minutes, stirring often, until the cabbage is soft. Sprinkle a little salt over them. The vegetables will give off plenty of water, and when they do, use a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits off the bottom of the pot. Once the pot is clean and the cabbage and onions soft, remove from the pot and set aside with the pork shoulder.
Add the mushrooms and cook them without any additional oil, stirring often, until they release their water. Once they do, sprinkle a little salt on the mushrooms. When the water is nearly all gone, transfer the ingredients to a slow cooker. Add the pork shoulder, the cabbage-and-onion mixture, and then everything else. Add the wine. Stir well to combine.
Bigos is a dry stew, so you should not have enough liquid to submerge everything. The ingredients will give off more liquid as they cook. Cover the cooker and cook on high for four hours.
Per the recipe, bigos is better the longer it cooks, but you can eat it once the ham hock falls apart. When the hock is tender, remove it and pull off the meat and fat from the bones Discard the bones and the fat, then chop the meat roughly and return to the pot and cook another 30 minutes.
Serve with rye bread slathered with mustard or horseradish and a beer (or glass of red wine). The recipe stated that bigos improves with age and we found it to be an accurate statement. We enjoyed the leftovers for a few days and they were just as yummy as the first day.
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