Sunday, 26 October 2014

Recipe: Bigos (Polish Hunter's Stew)

With some foods, a little context and a bit of understanding can go a long way to aid enjoyment. The first time I ate Bigos, I'd not long been going out with Kasia, and we were in a Polish restaurant. Noting from the menu that it is a hunter's stew, and not realising that two different types of cabbage go into the stuff, I ordered a side portion of pickled cabbage. I decided there and then that Polish food was just irredeemably cabbagey, and not for me. Since then I've had my fair share of Bigos at countless meals at Kasia's parent's and on a trip to Poland, not to mention chez nous, and I've gotten to love it. It's a hearty one-pot wonder of a stew, a sweet/sour umami-bomb of autumnal satisfaction. We used our own cabbage and carrots, only hours out of the ground, which probably did no harm. But fret thee not if yours aren't quite as fresh, for the key ingredient in this dish is time. Lots and lots of time.

This is most of what you'll need
Saying that, there are some slightly esoteric ingredients required here. Or at least they would have been once; there's no shortage of Polish/Lithuanian shops adorning the streets of even the most one-horse high street these days. The main thing you'll need is some good kielbasa sausage. Polish butchers can stock a bewildering array of pork sausages, all looking pretty similar to the untrained eye. Tell them you're making bigos and they'll sort you out. Also, you'll need some dried mushrooms. Ours, the result of forest forages, are sent over from the motherland and I've no idea what they're called. That same Polish food shop will have something similar, but dried porcini, or just about any decent dried mushroom will do just fine. In this recipe we used pigs cheeks as they're really cheap (try Morrisons or Waitrose), delicious, and lend the sauce a wonderful richness. Pork shoulder is usually specified. You'll also want a slab of smoked bacon to chop into lardons; we used pancetta here. Prunes dissolve into the sauce, helping with the sweet/sour thing, as does (blasphemy?!) a good squirt of tommy k. Oh, and you'll need a jar of salted sauerkraut, available just about anywhere.

Ingredients (Serves at least 6, with some nice bread)
  • 6 Pork cheeks
  • 3 or 4 links of good kielbasa
  • Approx 150 slab of smoked bacon/pancetta
  • A 1 kilo jar of salted sauerkraut
  • 60g dried mushrooms, soaked for half an hour in 200 mls of boiling water
  • 4 small onions
  • 1 head of white cabbage
  • Approx 6/7 small to medium carrots
  • 50g butter
  • 1 tin of pitted prunes, in their juice
  • Approx 25 mls of decent tomato ketchup
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • Prep your meat and veg. For the cabbage, cut into quarters, remove the tough heart, then shred roughly. Chop the onions medium-fine and cube the carrots into approx 1cm pieces. Slice the sausages into rounds and dice the bacon
Chop that meat!
  • Tip the jar of sauerkraut into a very large heavy-bottomed pan, and warm over a low-medium heat. Add the chopped carrots and onions and the butter. Give a good stir and bung on the lid. You want everything to soften without browning.
  • As opposed to your frying pan, which you'll heat to medium-hot, before browning the pork cheeks in a little butter. Get them coloured all over, like a charver in a tanning salon. Once done, set aside and then fry the bacon in the same pan. Once coloured, set aside with the cheeks.
  • Meanwhile, you want to start adding your fresh shredded cabbage to the large pan. Depending on the size of your pan, you might need to do this in stages, stirring and then waiting until it wilts before adding more. Once all the cabbage is in, add the kielbasa sausage, the bacon lardons and the pig cheeks. Add the tomato sauce and the mushrooms, including the water they were soaked in. Give the whole thing a good stir, then it's lid on and cook over a very low heat for a minimum of two hours, stirring occasionally- careful it doesn't stick. After about an hour of this time, add the tin of prunes, with just a splash of their juices and stir thoroughly.
After about 30 mins cooking
  • After that time, the whole thing should be looking a quite uniform reddish colour, it should be quite saucy and smelling bloody amazing. Fish around for the pigs cheeks, remove them and roughly shred the meat, either with a fork or, if possessed of asbestos fingers, by hand. Return the cheek meat to the pan and continue to cook for around 30 mins. Season to taste- you may not need to salt much at all as the sauerkraut and bacon are plenty salty. Serve in bowls with some good hearty bread; rye would be perfect, I had made some spelt bread which went great.
The finished article
As the clocks go forward, subjecting us all to a world of dark evenings as far as the eye can muster, this is a dish in which to take comfort. I learned to love it through experience, but made and served as we just have on a chilly Sunday, it's a sure fire winner first time round. Needless to say, it's better the next day, and it's one of those stews that can be topped up and stretched out over the week. I'll give the final word to Adam Mickiewicz, and a verse from the Polish epic poem Pan Tadeusz

In the pots warmed the bigos; mere words cannot tell
Of its wondrous taste, colour and marvellous smell.
One can hear the words buzz, and the rhymes ebb and flow,
But its content no city digestion can know.
To appreciate the Lithuanian folksong and folk food, 
You need health, live on land, and be back from the wood.

Without these, still a dish of mediocre worth
Is bigos, made from legumes, best grown in the earth;
Pickled cabbage comes foremost, and properly chopped,
Which itself, is the saying, will in ones mouth hop;
In the boiler enclosed, with its moist bosom shields
Choices morsels of meat raised on greenest of fields;
The it simmers, till fire has extracted each drop
Of live juice, and the liquid boils over the top,
And the heady aroma wafts gently afar.
               - Adam Mickiewicz Pan Tadeusz, Book 4: Diplomacy and Hunt (Translated by Marcel Weyland)

Quite so


  1. This sounds really nice. I would have to play with the ingredients just a little to get mine to eat it but I think a variant would be so much better than not at all.

    Did you cook this on the stove top?? I think I would rather put it in the oven. Maybe I will even get our polish friends to try it and see what they think!!

    1. Hi Tanya. Yeah, this was done on the stove. Oven would be fine I guess, but Kasia's mum always did it on the stove and so, therefore, do we. Makes it easier to keep an eye on it I suppose. And makes your kitchen smell like the old country.

    2. Thanks for this; after bookmarking the recipe a month ago I made a vast pot yesterday, slowly cooked all day. Absolutely delicious, and just perfect for a hearty meal on a misty autumn day. I varied quantities and ingredients slightly, but I reckon the rich, deep explosion of flavours and textures is pretty much as you described. And it tastes even better the next day. Thanks again, this is a new family favourite!

    3. Great stuff, glad to hear it worked out!


All comments gratefully received. Sorry about the word verification thing, but I've started getting bombed by spam.

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