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