We took a winter Christmas market trip to Eastern and Central Europe (2013) that included Poland, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. While we were in Poland we had one of my favorite Polish recipes – Polish Hunter’s Stew – Bigos. See the recipe I created at the bottom of this post.
My Polish roots
My DNA is mostly Eastern-Central European and my late husband’s last name was Olkowski, which is Polish. His grandparents came to the U.S. from there. He was born in the mostly Polish enclave of Detroit called Hamtramck and then moved to Royal Oak, in the suburbs. I was able to visit his family several times in Michigan and enjoyed many delicious, traditional Polish dishes as well as his dad’s homemade wine that I hate to say tasted like cough syrup.
My dad’s grandparents are from Bialystok and Augustow, Poland. They immigrated to the US in the 1880’s. Jews began settling in that region in large numbers around 1658 and were there until the Nazi’s annihilated them and destroyed most of the cities in Poland during WWII. My family left way before that happened or I wouldn’t be here today.
My mother’s father was born in Ukraine and left for the US at the turn of the century to work as a coal miner before the Russian Revolution. Unfortunately, he was lured back there in 1938 after reading propaganda and then disappeared. We assume he was probably murdered by Stalin. My mother’s side of the family was Czech (Slovakian) and, as far as I know, they were Russian Orthodox.
With my mixed cultural backgrounds and religions, I grew up secular Jewish, celebrating Chanukah and Passover as well as Christmas. We always had a tree with all the trimmings and a menorah. My philosophy is to eat everything, celebrate everything and “Co-exist.”
Our trip to Poland
When Doug announced we were going to Poland, I was both excited and a little nervous. Some of the Polish people I’d met in years past were clearly anti-Semitic. They’d been through a horrific war and Communist takeover so it was understandable that they would be bitter. Much to my delight and relief, I found the Polish people I met on our trip to be friendly, hospitable, and sympathetic to the plight and history of the Jews in Poland – and their many contributions to art, culture, science, and business.
The Polish people were also able to re-establish their heritage and traditions that include some of their mouth-watering cuisines.
Polish Hunter’s Stew – Bigos – the national dish of Poland
I used to have a Polish acting teacher who would spend days cooking a huge pot of Bigos for his birthday celebration. The longer it cooked on the stove, the better it tasted.
Bigos is a one-pot concoction of cabbage, sauerkraut, various types of meats, wild mushrooms and sometimes prunes.
Traditionally, it’s made of what we may find to be alarming amounts of pork fat, lard, bacon and other “porky” parts. Poles love their pork fat.
Bigos was served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at some of the restaurants and hotels we stayed at during our trip. That made sense because the climate in Poland is frosty and a nice steaming plate of Bigos will quickly warm you up. Polish cuisine features many hearty and delicious soups, stews, meats, potatoes, dumplings, and cabbage all washed down with beer or shots of Polish vodka.
When we were in Kraków (an amazing Polish city) we also drank some mead. It’s made with honey, hops, grains, and spices and is called the “ancestor of all fermented drinks.” It originated thousands of years ago possibly by the Sanskrit Rig-Veda of Ancient India and in the last centuries BC, cultures in Europe, Africa, and Asia were drinking it. Since then it’s been drunk by Vikings, Saxons, Celts, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.
But back to my Bigos recipe
Even though I could have developed a more “health-conscious” Bigos recipe, possibly made with quinoa, tofu, kale, or goji berries, it just wouldn’t be the same as the real thing. When it comes to eating for longevity, there’s nothing wrong with “going with the flow” every once in a while and enjoying foods that people all over the world have thrived on for centuries without immediately dropping dead. I mean, seriously. . . You know you want some. . . right?
One of the health benefits of eating Bigos is that it’s made with sauerkraut. Fermented sauerkraut provides our bodies with natural probiotics.
Try to use a high-quality sauerkraut if you can. German sauerkraut is wonderful.
You can also use a combination of wild dried mushrooms that have been re-plumped, fresh mushrooms or a combination of both. The Polish people love to hunt for wild forest mushrooms and use them in their Bigos recipes. They’re delicious but any store bought mushroom will do as well.
Since Bigos is a “Hunter’s Stew” you can use various combinations of meats, including game and smoked sausages. Bacon is an integral part of making Bigos. For health reasons, try to find bacon that’s naturally aged rather than processed.
I recommend not adding salt until the very end of cooking. Depending on what brand of sauerkraut you use, it will affect how much salt you need.
Enjoy your Bigos with some Pierogi and Polish beer. You can always buy them frozen at the grocery store if you’re not into making them from scratch.
I was surprised to learn that my son makes excellent pierogi. He posted these pics on Facebook showing off his pierogi mastery and I was impressed.
For fun, I poured by Bigos into “bread bowls” that I made out of small round bread loaves I found at the market. Then I used the remaining bread to make croutons.
Have fun making and delighting in a yummy pot of Bigos!
- 1 whole cabbage chopped
- 3 onions chopped
- 3-6 slices of marbled bacon
- About 2 lbs of fermented sauerkraut (German is great)
- 1 oz. Dried wild mushrooms
- 1 ½ lbs mixed fresh mushrooms (or brown crimini, porcini, morels, etc.) If they are small leave whole or cut in half if larger
- ½ lb. pork shoulder cut into bite-sized pieces
- ½ lb. stew beef cubed
- 1-2 Fresh sausages (Kielbasa, Andouille, or Bratwurst) taken out its casing and crumbled
- ½ of a 2 foot smoked Kielbasa sausage
- Cold cut meat chopped (optional)
- 1 bottle of light or amber beer
- 1 cup of red wine
- 1 Tbsp. Peppercorns
- 1 Tbsp. Juniper berries
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 Tbsp. caraway seeds
- 2 natural beef bouillon cubes (use cubes instead of liquid and opt for low or no salt)
- 1 tsp allspice (optional)
- 20 pitted and halved prunes
- 8 oz. of dry red wine
- ½ baked bread rounds (optional- baked – 1 per person)
- If you’re using dried mushrooms, pour hot water over them and let them soak for 20-40 minutes until they plump up. Set aside.
- With a mortar and pestle, gently grind the juniper berries and peppercorns so they are slightly cracked.
- In a large heavy pot, fry up about 3 slices of bacon for a few minutes
- Remove the bacon and slightly brown all your fresh meats in batches. Don’t cook them all the way through as the cooking process is long. Just brown them a bit on all sides and remove to set aside in a large bowl. You can chop up the bacon and set it aside with the meat.
- Add the chopped cabbage and onion to the pot and sauté until the cabbage is soft and the onions are translucent. Remove the cabbage and onions from the pot.
- Add 3 more strips of bacon to the heavy pot and fry for a couple minutes. Remove the bacon strips and leave the fat in the pot. Add the fresh and dried mushrooms and sauté them on a high heat to sear and then a bit lower until they release their water. Cook until the water is somewhat reduced.
- Add back the browned meats, cabbage, and onions, spices, bouillon, smoked meats and cold cuts. (If you are using them) Empty the bottle of beer into the mixture. Gently stir all the ingredients and simmer on the stove using a very low heat for about 3 hours. You won’t have to add any water because the cabbage, beer, mushrooms, etc., will be enough., However, keep an eye on the pot to prevent any burning.
- Let the Bigos set until it’s cool and then refrigerate it overnight.
- The next day, take it out and let it simmer on a very low heat for another 3 more hours.
- During the last 30 minutes of simmering add the prunes and glass of wine.
- Ultimately, you want the Bigos to have an amber appearance and not be soupy. It’s known as a dry stew.
- I made bowls out of small round bread loaves. I picked up ½ baked bread at Sprouts (they are available at other stores as well and used a sharp knife to cut a bowl into them. I filled the “bread bowls” up with Bigos and set them on individual plates. I used the remaining bread from cutting out the bowls to make croutons. (Day old, drizzled with olive oil, herbs, and baked for 15 minutes at 400 degrees)
Some people like to stick a ham hock in the middle of the Bigos mixture and let it cook until the meat starts to fall off. You would then fish out the ham hock and let it cool. Cut off the meat and add it to the pot and discard the bone and fat. Other meats you can use in Bigos are veal, venison, bison, poultry, and vegetables.
Before serving your Bigos remove the bay leaf and any bones in the meat if you cook with bone on.
You can also add a little tomato paste if desired.
As I mentioned, the longer your Bigos cooks, the better.
Book a Trip to Poland
Hotels in Poland
- Booking.com – Find a hotel in Krakow
- Booking.com – Find a hotel in Warsaw
- Booking.com – Find a hotel in Bydgoszcz
Flights to Warsaw
- Skyscanner – Find the most affordable flight to Warsaw on a search engine you can trust.
Car Rental in Poland
- Auto Europe – This site offers the best auto rates in Europe.
Tours in Poland
- Tour Poland – Book a tour on Viator to see the amazing sites of Poland.
What is your favorite Polish dish? Please leave a comment below and let us know. We want to eat it.