It's hard to imagine anything more comforting than a stew that burbles on the back of the stove for hours on end, keeping the kitchen fragrant and warm while the wind and snow rage outside. Bigos, or Polish hunter's stew, is just that kind of dish. Traditionally made from the beginning of fall through the cold Eastern-European winter, it would feature the fruits of the hunter's woods (venison and wild mushrooms) as well as sauerkraut, which would have been barrelled to last all winter.
Another nickname for this stew is "perpetual stew," as the contents of the pot would be replaced with additional meat and preserved vegetables as the family ate during the week. The initial feast, however, would only take place on the third day ~ it takes that long for the flavours to first develop and blend.
I was first introduced to bigos by Silvena Rowe, in her cookbook the Eastern and Central European Kitchen. I also consulted Barbara Rolek's version at About.com's Eastern European Food section. However, the recipe below is definitely my own take on this dish. Bigos historically contains dried prunes or apples for sweetness, but my palate tends to rebel when there is sweet fruit strewn amongst the savoury. By way of compromise, I used a fortified wine for the cooking liquid as a more subtle way of lending that sweet note to the dish. I was lucky to have a bag of dried pidpenky, the honey mushrooms my family forages in the fall, in my freezer, but any variety of dried wild mushroom will do.
Bigos is usually served with peeled boiled potatoes, but I think just some rye bread and an assortment of pickles is plenty in the way of accompaniment. Don’t forgot the sprig of something frilly atop each serving — I had curly parsley in the fridge, left over from garnishing platters for a cocktail party — as it represents the feather in the hunter’s cap. The ample leftovers will freeze well. —Nostrovia_ca
dried wild mushrooms
smoked side bacon, diced
pound stewing beef, cut into 1-1/2-inch pieces
good-quality kielbasa, halved and cut into 1/2-inch slices
large yellow cooking onion, halved and thinkly sliced
cloves garlic, minced
small head green cabbage, cored, halved, and thinly sliced
28-ounce jar sauerkraut, drained
diced tomoatoes with their juice (canned are fine; equivalent is about 4 medium ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped)
heaping tablespoon tomato paste
fortified wine, such as sherry or sweet vermouth
spice bag containing 5 large sprigs thyme, 5 allspice berries, 5 juniper berries, and 5 peppercorn berries
Place dried mushrooms in a medium bowl and cover with boiling water by about 2 inches. Set aside. Heat butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add cremini mushrooms. Cook mushrooms until they begin to release their moisture; turn heat to medium-low and let cook, stirring occasionally, until mushroom have caramelized (about 30 minutes). Set aside.
Meanwhile, in a large Dutch oven or lidded round casserole, fry bacon over medium heat until most of the fat has rendered. Remove bacon to a bowl with a slotted spoon. Fry stewing beef in bacon fat until it has browned on all sides. Remove beef to bowl with the bacon. Add slice kielbasa to the other reserved meats.
Add sliced onion to the pot and mix it well with the remaining bacon fat, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pot (add a Tablespoon or two of canola or other cooking oil if onion is too dry). Once onion has softened slightly, add garlic and cabbage. Cook, stirring occasionally, until cabbage has lost half its volume.
Turn heat to high. Add both varieties of reserved mushrooms, plus the strained soaking liquid from the dried mushrooms, sauerkraut, tomatoes, tomato paste, wine, and spice bag to the pot and bring to the boil. Add the reserved meats and stir well to combine all ingredients. Turn heat to low and cover the pot. Cook for 2 hours, stirring occasionally and adding a splash of water or wine to the pot if stew gets too dry (there should be a thin layer of cooking liquid at the bottom of the pot at all times). Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Chill in the fridge overnight.
The next day, remove stew from fridge and bring up to a simmer on low heat. Cook for 1-1/2 hours, stirring occasionally and adding a splash of water or wine if necessary. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Chill again in the fridge overnight.
On the third day, remove stew from fridge and bring up to a simmer on low heat. Cook for 1-1/2 hours, stirring occasionally and adding a splash of water or wine if necessary. At the end of the cooking time, remove the spice bag, and taste for seasonings (I find no salt is needed ~ the cured meats season the dish sufficiently) and serve the stew hot.