Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Bigos - Polish Hunter's Stew

This tasty treat is known as Poland's national dish and possibly one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten made with cabbage in it!

I first discovered it... well, let's just say a few years ago (OK, two decades ago!) when I went to the Polish club in Melton with some friends, where they served it at the bar from a huge pot onto paper plates, and you'd get a generous portion with a couple of kabanos sausages on the side. I never knew that cabbage could be so tasty!

Being the curious cook I am, as with many dishes, I felt that I had to replicate it myself with the help of a bit of research, and some tips from a Polish friend, and I have been making it ever since with the odd tweak here and there over the years. Generally speaking, bigos is made with a base of meat (usually a mixture of game and/or pork shoulder, and smoked Polish sausage), sauerkraut and fresh cabbage, and a few other things - although it is said that there are as many recipes for bigos as there are cooks in Poland, so as you can see it is perfectly acceptable to substitute or omit ingredients to your taste!

Now, I like cabbage, but it's not my favourite vegetable cooked, and my other half doesn't even like it. My children are not overly fussed either way. However, by the time this stew has braised, it looks and tastes like no cabbage you have ever had before - an inviting coppery colour, tender and moist with deep, rich smoky flavours from the meat juices, sausage, wine and other delights in there, like the wild mushrooms which add a real depth. Everyone loves it, even the cabbage haters! So, even if you're dubious about it, I urge you to give it a try - you won't regret it and it's a brilliant winter warmer and very convenient to heat up quickly! See the notes at the bottom for slow cooker or pressure cooker suggestions.

As with many stews, I urge you to prepare this at least one day before you want to eat it, as the flavour is much better the next day. It improves if you keep it another couple of days as well - some say to wait until the fourth day for the best flavour! However, it is delicious on the next day, so you don't need to wait that long (and I will forgive you for snaffling some just after you've cooked it). Some even say that the flavour is best after repeated reheating and refrigeration, although I'm not recommending that for food hygiene reasons!

I usually prepare double the quantity below (as I like to feed the 5,000 and freeze leftovers), however in order to do this, you really do need a very big dish to cook it in - I couldn't find my favourite old earthernware dish on this occasion, so used a standard 5.3 litre large cast iron casserole dish, which as you can see is NOT big enough to stir it (and I had to involve a very large bowl and ladle on the side to over come this!).

My bigos before the first stir - make sure your dish is big enough, unlike this one!

So, to cook the quantity below, I recommend you use at the very least a 3.3 litre casserole dish (and obviously to double it, scale up accordingly).

Servings: I think this serves eight people (well, there's about 3 kilos of food in all, which is around 375g each), although if you have hungry Polish hunters you may find it serves six. Traditionally it is served with boiled potatoes or rye bread - or if you want to fancy it up you could even serve it up in a 'bread bowl' and enjoy the crusty bread soaked in juices as you work your way down it. At the Polish club, they'd serve with a couple of kabanos on the side (long, thin, spicy smoked Polish sausages), heated through - although you might find that to be sausage overkill on account of having sausage already in the dish! If you're feeling hardcore, serve with shots of chilled vodka (not recommended for children!). It's good for breakfast, dinner or supper, or even a starter, if you're that way inclined. Either way, enjoy!

Calories: Approximately 285 calories for an eighth portion (*if using mixed game, see notes - also, if you skip the bacon and prunes you can reduce this by a further 42 calories, so from 243 calories) or 381 calories if having a sixth, when made with mixed game and 2 tbsp fat/oil. If you're on a 'fast day', this would give you plenty of room for a few baby boiled potatoes on the side if you fancied, at 68 calories per 100g.

[Calories in square brackets for those counting]
  • 500g mixed game (e.g. venison, duck, rabbit, pheasant etc.) and/or pork shoulder, diced [530 calories for mixed game*]
  • 75g smoked streaky bacon lardons (optional) [218]
  • 2-3 x 15ml tbsp lard or neutral oil [247-370]
  • 1 onion [42]
  • 1 medium white cabbage (500g prepared) [140]
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 x 900g jar sauerkraut (600g drained weight, e.g. Dawtona) [150]
  • 25g dried wild mushrooms (e.g. porcini) [73]
  • 200g smoked cooked whole Polish sausage (e.g. wiejska / kielbasa - available at many supermarkets, but if you really can't get hold of any, something like Matthesons smoked cooked pork sausage with a hint of garlic is probably the closest thing widely available - check ingredients for gluten and dairy free) [298]
  • 75g dried, pitted prunes (optional) [120]
  • 1/2 tsp caraway seeds [4]
  • 1/2 tsp juniper berries
  • 1/4 tsp allspice (optional) [1]
  • 200g skinned, chopped tomatoes (tinned is fine, optional) [50]
  • 1 sharp eating apple (e.g. Granny Smith, optional) [60]
  • 1 beef or chicken stock cube (or use game stock, see notes**), or bouillon concentrate to make up 450ml - I like a mix of both (check ingredients if cooking gluten / dairy free) [20]
  • 125ml red wine [108]
  • 40g tomato puree [40]
  • 25g butter (or use other fat if cooking dairy free) [184]
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


1. Soak the dried mushrooms in approximately 600ml of hot water while you prepare the other ingredients. Pre-heat the oven to Gas Mark 4 / 180C / 350F.

2. Cut your game and/or pork shoulder into pieces approximately 2cm square (or bigger if you prefer, I just find bite-size convenient), removing any tough/thick silvery sinew. It is fine if you want to include some small jointed pieces on the bone as well (e.g. rabbit legs, game bird thighs / drumsticks etc.). Dice the onion, de-stalk/core and shred the cabbage, and squeeze as much liquid as you can out of the sauerkraut (discard the liquid) and then chop it up roughly. Cut the smoked sausage into quarters lengthwise, and then dice. Cut the prunes into small pieces.

3. Reserving all of the soaking water, squeeze the excess from the mushrooms back into it, and then chop the mushrooms up. Allow any grit to settle in the soaking water, then carefully pour off 450ml and reserve it, discarding any remnants with sediment and grit in it. Add the crumbled stock cube to the 450ml mushroom water, and add the 125ml red wine and 40g tomato puree and stir in, and set aside.

4. Season the meat with a little salt, heat up 1 tbsp lard/oil in a large, flameproof casserole dish (or use a pan if you don't have one) and brown the meat in batches, adding more oil if/when necessary, and set the meat aside. Then cook the bacon until just beginning to crisp, remove with a slotted spoon leaving the oil in the pan, and add to the reserved meat.

5. Add the onion to the pan, and cook for a couple of minutes until softened and only just starting to turn golden on a few pieces. Then add the shredded fresh cabbage and bay leaves, and cook over a medium heat, stirring, for about 10 minutes or so, until the cabbage has reduced in volume and started to become tender. Scrape up any tasty brown bits from the bottom of the pan when stirring the cabbage. Remove from the heat, stir in the drained, chopped sauerkraut until throughly mixed, and then take out about half the mixture and set aside.

6. Spread the remaining half of the cabbage mixture evenly over the base of your casserole dish, and scatter on top the browned meat and bacon, diced sausage, mushrooms, prunes, caraway seeds, juniper berries, allspice, chopped tomatoes, a good grinding of black pepper, then peel and either finely dice (my preference) or grate the apple on top. Pile the remainder of the cabbage mix on top of this and pat down gently and evenly.

7. Pour the stock mixture evenly over everything and dot with butter. Put the lid onto your casserole dish (or cover with foil) and place into the middle of the oven. You should be able to leave it for about an hour before you give it a good stir for the first time, and then stir a couple more times thereafter making sure it does not dry out or stick to the bottom (if necessary, add a little extra liquid while cooking). Cook for approximately 3 hours in total, or until the meat is tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed. You should end up with a delicious mixture of meat and cabbage which is wet and a bit saucy, but not sloppy or soupy. If desired, you can add a thickener at the end, although I have never found this necessary. You will probably also find it is less wet the next day.

8. If you can resist eating it immediately, cool down and refrigerate for a day, before reheating however many portions you need gently - you can do this by adding a little water and reheating in the oven (covered), or you can cheat and microwave it if you must! If you want to heat it up on the hob, stir frequently and be careful it doesn't burn on the bottom. Enjoy with warm crusty bread or boiled potatoes, or even just on its own - it's very filling!

*I used 150g venison [168 calories], 100g skinless duck breast [127] and 250g diced rabbit [235] - total calories 530: most diced game will be similar as it is generally quite lean. Pork shoulder is around 151 calories per 100g, which would be around 755 calories for 500g. If you want to throw in pieces of game on the bone (e.g. rabbit or bird legs) that's absolutely fine as long as you warn people there are bones! Just increase the quantity a little.

**If you want to use game stock, you can heat it up and soak the mushrooms in it, and pour back out again through a fine seive, discarding the last bit with grit in, to make sure you get the mushroom flavour in it too. You need to end up with 450ml of liquid.

You can also pop this into a slow cooker or pressure cooker if you prefer - but rather than layering all of the ingredients, give them a good stir at the beginning with the liquid, then dot the butter on top and set to cook. Several hours in the slow cooker, as you would for a stew, or 25 minutes at high pressure in the pressure cooker. In both cases you may need to reduce or thicken the liquid a little after cooking.

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