I wrote a while ago about my slow-learning process of cooking Polish dishes – something I have tried on and off to soothe Renata’s palate, which goes through a lot of ‘adventures’ as I experiment with varied forms of cuisine, going from Indian to Brazilian, Jamaican, Hawaiian and everything in between. Thankfully, she has been quite receptive to my growing culinary eccentricities, but sometimes I feel bad that I have not made much of an effort to learn how to make more of the foods of her native land.
The truth is that Polish food is quite labor-intensive. There are few dishes that do not require lots of boiling, slicing and dicing (no, those frozen pierogies don’t count – you have to make them from scratch), and honestly I lack the patience and time to spend hours in the kitchen going through the process. That is why I never tried to make gołapki (stuffed cabbage) or anything like that.
My all-time favorite Polish dish is bigos, which is a kielbasa and cabbage-based stew that has to be boiled for hours. When I wanted to have it, I would walk down the street to the Polish Place, a food store that carried all kinds of products and that also served hot food. Sadly, the store closed a few years back, and I had few opportunities to savor the stew since then.
Early last week I started to search for recipes for bigos, and was dumbfounded by how many different versions existed. They all contained sauerkraut, fresh cabbage and smoked kielbasa, but there were many variations wherever I looked – some called for using lager beer, while others went with dry red wine or beef broth. All were pretty unanimous about using leftover meats and bacon drippings, so I just went with whatever seemed to make sense. I had some fresh kielbasa and bacon, so I went out and got some smoked turkey sausage and the other ingredients.
Since Renata and I went for an early outing on Saturday, we stayed in for the evening – a great opportunity to prepare the stew and let it boil for as long as it was needed (the idea was to eat the next day) and listen to some music and drink wine in the process. I began by chopping up the fresh cabbage, onions, tomatoes (one recipe called for that), the two kinds of sausage and the bacon. I drained the sauerkraut and started cooking by throwing the bacon in. As soon as the drippings melted, I added the vegetables and stirred until the cabbage wilted well. I then threw in the kielbasa, wine, water and chicken stock and just let it simmer gently. I would often ask Renata to taste the sauce to make sure it was ‘right.’ I made a few adjustments as I went along and about two hours later I was done. We let the pot ‘rest’ for a while and then I served Renata some – and got her approval.
• 4 ounces fresh mushrooms
• 1 cup dry red wine
• 2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
• 1 tablespoon bacon drippings and chopped bits
• 1 medium onion, chopped
• 1 small head fresh cabbage, chopped
• 1 pound sauerkraut, rinsed well and drained
• 1/2 pound smoked Polish sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces
• 1/2 pound cooked fresh Polish sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces
• 3 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped
• 1 bay leaf
• Salt and black pepper to taste
1. In a large pot with lid, sauté onion and fresh cabbage in bacon drippings or vegetable oil. When cabbage has collapsed by half, add sauerkraut, meats, tomatoes, wine, bay leaf and mushrooms.
2. Mix well and bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat to low and simmer covered for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally and adding liquid as needed to prevent burning.
3. When ready to serve, remove bay leaf. Portion into heated bowls. Accompany with whole, peeled and boiled potatoes or crusty bread