I’d like to promise that the recipes I include under my new ‘My Polish Kitchen‘ banner won’t be all about cabbage! Polish food is so much more than that, yet it would be wrong not to pay homage to Poland’s national dish – Bigos, or Hunter’s Stew.
There are probably as many individual recipes for Bigos as there are cooks in Poland. Bigos is a savoury dish, traditionally made with sauerkraut (kapusta kiszona) or cabbage and meat. It used to be cooked in a cauldron or on a camp fire and Polish hunters would add whatever meat they had to hand, for example, venison or other game. It is even mentioned by Adam Mickiewicz in the epic poem Pan Tadeusz.
Without these, still a dish of no 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
Choicest morsels of meat raised on greenest of fields;
Then 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.
~ Pan Tadeusz, Adam Mickiewicz
Bigos evolved and became a national staple; it is frugal (cabbage is plentiful in Poland!) and keeps well. Almost any kind of sausage or meat can be added. Smoked meats or sausages (such as kabanos) are ideal, too, adding extra flavour, along with juniper berries, caraway, bay leafs. Some like it very sour, whilst others prefer to sweeten it a little with honey or prunes. I’ve also seen recipes with a little tomato paste added. My Mama’s secret is to make it a tiny bit creamy by adding a little mushroom soup. The real trick is to cook it for a long time, on a low heat, or to re-heat it to intensify the flavour in the days after it has been cooked.
Bigos is a great crowd-pleaser and it had graced our family table on almost every celebratory occasion!
Recipe: Mama's Bigos - Hunter's Stew
Poland's National Dish - made to my Mama's recipes, using sauerkraut and plenty of Polish sausage!
- 2 jars sauerkraut e.g Krakus brand
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 500g very lean belly pork or pork shoulder
- 2 smoked kabanos (polish sausage)
- 50g dried porcini mushrooms
- 3 juniper berries
- 3 dried prunes (optional)
- 1.5 litres chicken stock made up with water
- 100g white mushrooms, chopped
- Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
- Drain the sauerkraut into a sieve. If the sauerkraut is very sour (and you would prefer it to be less sour) you can rinse it with cold water and then drain. If you like sour, then simply squeeze out the liquid using your clean hands. Set to one side.
- Heat the vegetable oil in a large pan and add the onions. Cook on a very low heat until the onions are very soft and lightly golden - around ten minutes.
- Add the chopped pork to the pan and brown all over, until any fat has melted.
- Add the chopped kabanos or smoked sausage to the pan.
- In a separate bowl, pour one cup of hot water on the porcini mushrooms and leave them to soak.
- Add the drained sauerkraut to the pan with the onions and meat.
- Add the chicken stock and stir together well. Drain the porcini mushrooms, roughly chop and add to the sauerkraut. Add the juniper berries and prunes (if using) and pour in the cup of porcini mushroom stock, too, being careful not to add any of the grit at the bottom.
- Cover with a lid, or tin foil and bake in the oven for one and a half hours, turning the oven down to 180 degrees Celsius after the first fifteen minutes.
- Towards the end of the cooking time, chop the white mushrooms and fry them in a separate pan with a little vegetable oil. Add these into the sauerkraut, stir well and bake for a further thirty minutes.
- The bigos is best eaten the day after cooking after being thoroughly well re-heated.
- Serve with Polish rye bread.
Tip: you can also add some chopped, fresh white cabbage to this stew before cooking, which will make it stretch as you'll have a bigger quantity of Bigos at the end. It also slightly mellows the flavour if you prefer your final dish to be less sour. Some cooks add a teaspoon of tomato paste (instead of the mushrooms) and a couple of dried prunes for sweetness.