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Paleo Bigos (Polish Hunter’s Stew)

In each issue of Paleo Magazine, I share the story of a traditional recipe and adapt it to fit into a healthier paleo lifestyle. This time, we traveled to the verdant forest of 19th century Poland for a stew that sure to warm you on a chilly day.

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Also known as “Hunter’s Stew,” Bigos is the national dish of Poland, a slow-simmered stew of sauerkraut, bacon, and other game meats. It was traditionally served to nourish hunters who roamed on horseback through the forest for days at a time. Every evening at camp, fresh hunks of meat from the days’ hunt were added to the pot, and it was reheated, creating a perpetual stew with flavors that deepened as the days passed by. It was washed down with great quantities of vodka and, I imagine, plenty of tall tales and braggadocio about the days’ adventures.

Cooks have been stirring pots of bigos since the Middle Ages, but it wasn’t until 1834 that Polish poet and philosopher Adam Michiewicz immortalized it in an epic poem. Pan Tadeusz recounts the simmering passions of two feuding noble families, set against the backdrop of a Polish revolt against Russian occupation, circa 1811. This ode to bigos appears in Book Four of Pan Taduesz, after misadventures and a successful hunt:

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 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 (1834)

Traditionally, bigos was prepared with wild boar, pheasant, and venison. A survey of historical and modern recipes indicates that a few ingredients are somewhat non-negotiable: smoky bacon and kielbasa, tangy sauerkraut, earthy mushrooms, and a generous glug of red wine. But the other meats are wide ranging — cocktail franks, ham hocks, pigs’ knuckles, lamb, pork, beef, venison, veal — and can be dressed up with tomato, apples, prunes, potatoes, or a combination.

In this version, I opted to include both apples and prunes to balance the tart bite of the sauerkraut. I also caramelized some tomato paste to render a richer broth, and used pork and lamb, mostly because those are my two favorite meats. I like the body provided by the red wine so I splashed some into my pot, but it’s also delicious without, if you prefer to abstain. Bigos is meant to be a different stew every time, so make this recipe your own by using whatever combination of meats and fruits appeals to you.

According to lore, bigos tastes best on the third day, so you would do well to make it advance and reheat it before eating, just like those hunters of yore. The stew also freezes well; just defrost it in the refrigerator and reheat it slowly to coax it back to steaming.

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Bigos (Polish Hunter’s Stew)

Serves 6-8 | Prep 15 minutes | Cook 2 hours | Whole30 compliant

Ingredients:
1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
4 ounces sugar-free bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 pounds boneless stew meat, cubed: pork, veal, beef, or lamb
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 pound smoked kielbasa, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 medium onions, diced (about 2 cups)
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
2 bay leaves
1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
3 pounds sauerkraut, drained
3/4 cup pitted prunes, coarsely chopped
6 cups beef stock
3/4 cup dry red wine (optional; omit for Whole30)
2 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
garnish: fresh thyme or parsley, minced

Directions:
1. Place the mushrooms in a small bowl, cover with 1 1/2 cups boiling water, and let them rehydrate, about 1 hour. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the mushrooms to a cutting board and roughly chop them. Set aside. Slowly pour the remaining soaking liquid into another bowl, being careful to leave behind any sediment from the mushrooms. Set the clear liquid aside.

2. Place the chopped bacon in a cold Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot and cook over medium heat until the fat renders, about 12 minutes. Remove the bacon to a large bowl, leaving the fat in the pan. Sprinkle the meat cubes with the salt and pepper. Working in batches, brown the meat in the bacon fat until it’s nicely browned on all sides. As they brown, remove the cubes and place in the bowl with the bacon. Add the kielbasa chunks and cook until browned, about 6 minutes. Transfer to the meat bowl.

3. To the fat in the pot, add the onion, caraway seeds, allspice, and bay leaves. Cook, scraping the bottom of pot, until the onions are soft, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook until it begins to brown, about 3 minutes. Add the sauerkraut, and cook, stirring, until it’s slightly wilted, about 2 minutes.

4. Return the meat to the pot along with the reserved mushrooms and their soaking liquid. Add the prunes, beef stock, and wine; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Taste, then add salt and pepper, as necessary. Add the apples, and cook, covered, until the meat and apples are tender, about 30 minutes more. Garnish with fresh, minced herbs. Tastes great ladled over mashed cauliflower or alongside boiled potatoes.

Intrigued? You can read the entire Pan Tadeusz epic in English online.

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20 Responses to “Paleo Bigos (Polish Hunter’s Stew)”

  1. Erin Clare says:

    I am SO glad you posted this. My grandmother was Polish and had some great recipes. Over the years they have been lost, one by one.

    And…I just bought a slow cooker for Nate. Of course if he reads this the cat is out of the bag!

  2. foodrenegade says:

    Oh this looks fantabulous! This will definitely be on the menu this weekend. Speaking of which — wondering why you use Pam spray? Why not just stick with a good, high-temperature oil like ghee, tallow, or coconut for the browning?

    Off topic — My husband helped an older lady at church this week clean out her garage. As payment she gave him an old, but never used tandem bicylcle! We have had so much fun riding to do our errands with our kids in tow behind us. I didn't know I could have so much fun on a bike. :)

  3. Melicious says:

    I posted this recipe before I saw the light and increased my fat intake. I've been on a rambling road for about 18 months, learning how to eat properly after a lifetime of being overweight and thinking low fat/high carb/super cardio was the road to happiness.

    Thanks for pointing that out; I'm going to update the recipe right now.

  4. Addi says:

    Scavenging for recipes to make for an anniversary dinner on Thursday – you had me at icy vodka and Glamazon. Pretty sure this is the winner.

  5. Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    I hope you like it! Let me know how it turns out!

  6. Michele says:

    We made this the other night and it was a big hit. I have a 13 y.o. who isn't fond of cabbage, but thanks to the meat content was happily gobbling it up. Another success! (we also made the sunbutter sauce, but used almond butter – it was very very good on grilled chicken). Thank goodness for you!

  7. Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    Michele –> So glad to hear you liked the bigos! Did you read the poem aloud before eating?! :-)

    Thanks for the tip on almond butter in the Sunshine Sauce… I have to try that!

  8. Anne says:

    Wow. We made this tonight (yeah, I know, we’re weird – we like stew during the summer and we just made your chili for about the 10th time!) and it is so good. I’m intrigued about doing a version of this when we’re not so strict about our diet (maybe during the winter) but in any case this recipe is GOOD GOOD GOOD. We are going to make a trip to Penzey’s before long too since we are sorta in the neighborhood (northern Virginia) and they should send you a thank you note after our visit ’cause I know we’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from you all along!

    • Mel says:

      Thanks for taking the time to let me know you liked it! It really is great for cold nights — or, ya know, a hot summer day :-)

      Have SO MUCH FUN at Penzeys. I bought a huge pile of stuff the last time I went. Be sure to sniff the cumin!

  9. Jackie says:

    Made this dish on Monday ate it last night…My loving partner requested that I comment about how much she absolutely LOVES it!!!! She had it for supper and then another serving as dessert…

    • Mel says:

      I LOVE seconds for dessert! Reminds me of when I went to a Mark Sisson seminar… he was talking about how weird it is that our culture eats a sweet meal after a full meal, and then he said, “My idea of dessert is another lamb chop!”

  10. Pam says:

    This stew was amazing! My mouth has been watering ever since I read the recipe a week ago. Today was perfect weather in Denver for this dish. Thank you for such a easy and delicious recipe!

  11. […] Bigos (hunter’s stew) from The Clothes Make the Girl […]

  12. Natalia says:

    Hi Melissa:)! What types/cuts of meat & lamb are best to use in this recipe? Just not sure what to ask the butcher for – thanks!

  13. Natalia says:

    Thanks! Any particular type for lamb?

  14. Florence says:

    Oh my this conjures up childhood memories. I grew up eating bigos and its one of my favourite dishes. My aunt gave me her recipe about 25 years ago. The last line states “bigos is best on the third day”. Can’t wait to start paleo/Whole30 and try your rendition of bigos and lots of your other fabulous recipes!

    • That’s awesome! I read online in my research that the third day is the magic day. I *just* reworked this recipe for my Paleo Magazine column, and it’s even better. I’ll be sharing that one later in the fall. Happy cooking!

  15. Diana says:

    I am so excited I am making this today! Got all my ingredients yesterday and can not wait to fill my house with the yummy smell!

    This brings back SO many memories. My family is 100% polish so we have it all the time, however I have never attempted to make it

    I have a question about the apple. Does it add tartness/sourness or sweetness? My family has never put the apple in !

    Just curious :)

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