Saturday, 22 April 2017

Bigos It's Delicious

My mother is rather deaf, so when my parents picked up my brother from the airport, and he regaled them with tales of his Edinburgh Easter, all my mother gleaned was that I had been very busy.  How true that was. I caught up on sleep only yesterday when, to my great relief, I managed to have an afternoon nap.

It really was a splendid Easter. My brother Quadrophonic arrived, dog-tired, on Holy Wednesday night, and I put him in the best guest room. On Holy Thursday, I brought Quadrophonic along to Tesco to help carry bags of ingredients home, and in the evening we all went to Mass. Afterwards Benedict Ambrose reminisced about the Holy Thursday curries of his youth, and so Quadrophonic treated us to a splendid curry feast at the nearest snazzy sit-down. In deference to B.A.'s recent surgery, we took a taxi home.

After that, it was cook, cook, wash, wash, clean, clean, bake, bake, rush off to church and welcome another guest or two. Occasionally I would leave B.A. in my brother's or Polish Pretend Son's charge with the instruction that he wasn't allowed to do any work. It cut me to the quick to prevent B.A. from washing the dishes, but my top priority was conserving his energy for church and, ultimately, our friend's Easter Monday wedding banquet.

With all the baking and cooking to do (self-imposed, I know), my life was a round of going to bed very late and getting up rather early, and by Easter Wednesday I was beginning to lose things and leave them behind. On Easter Thursday night, I informed the same stranger two times that there had been an accident on the South Bridge. He looked at me warily, poor chap.

I went to Polish class on Thursday night, and I was rubbish. Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish. This is partly the fault of my Polish Pretend Children, who did not speak to me in Polish while they were here. The only guest who addressed me po polsku was Polish Pretend Daughter's French husband, and we exchanged greetings and information in learners' pidgin, to PPD's great amusement. "You both make mistakes, and yet you both understand each other," she observed. However, this was no great wonder to me, as I speak Polish more often with non-Polish students of Polish than with actual Poles.

Yes, my performance during the Easter Thursday Polish class was abysmal, but the day was not a washout, for I had made Polish hunter stew---bigos (pron. BEE-ghos)--for the first time ever, turning dry roast lamb into nectar and ambrosia. And it was a REVELATION. In general, the longer you cook meat, the tougher and stringier and more horrible it gets, but for some reason, the process of turning a leftover roast into bigos makes it melt into delicious meat manna.

My Polish teacher said she had never heard of making bigos with lamb, and when I cited Anne Applebaum's recipe, she sniffed about Polish-American cooking. I argued that baranina is what I had, so baranina is what I used. Frankly, I think any Polish babcia would agree that it is better to use roast lamb in bigos than to waste (marnować) it or, worse, serve it cold and tough or, worst, warmed up with gravy. I suspect that bigos is the best solution for any kind of leftover roast meat.

Having looked at several bigos recipes (and every Polish family has its own) in advance, here is how I did it:

Edinburgh Bigos

1 big jar of Polish kapusta kwaszona (preserved cabbage)--NOT vinegar-laced sauerkraut!*--mixed with carrots (The carrots aren't at all essential.)
1 handful of dried mushrooms (I had Italian, so I used Italian. Next time I will use Polish.)
1 cup pitted prunes
2 cups of hot water
4 strips of streaky bacon
1 onion, chopped
1/2 a medium green cabbage, chopped
4 medium tomatoes, skinned and chopped
1/2 lb smoked kielbasa, chopped into 1-inch pieces
leftover cooked white kielbasa, chopped into 1-inch pieces
leftover chorizo sausage (mine was already sliced for a pizza that didn't get made)
almost 1 lb leftover roast lamb cut into approx. 1-inch pieces (Next time I will use leftover roast pork.)
1 bay leaf
1 cup of red wine (okay, it was dry sherry, but that is what I had open)

Use an enormous hob-safe casserole with a lid.

1. Soak preserved cabbage in cold water for half an hour and drain.

2. Pour 2 cups of boiling water on dried mushrooms and prunes in a medium-sized bowl and let them sit for half an hour.

3. Skin the tomatoes after pouring hot water on them and letting them sit in the hot water for a bit. This makes the skins loosen enough for you to pull them off. Don't burn yourself, however.

4. Fry bacon in the casserole at low temperature to get the fat out, and then tip in the chopped onions and fresh chopped cabbage to fry merrily.

5. When the fresh cabbage has reduced to half its original bulk, put in the drained preserved cabbage, the mushrooms and prunes and their soaking liquid (being careful to leave any sand at the bottom of the soaking bowl), the tomatoes, all the kielbasa and other sausage, the leftover roast, the bay leaf and one cup of red wine.

6. Bring to a boil on medium heat and then turn heat down to lowest setting. Cook with the lid on for at least 2 hours. However, the longer you cook bigos, the better it gets. (Just check periodically to make sure the liquid hasn't all evaporated.) Many Polish cooks say it tastes better the next day and even better the day after that. Salt and pepper to taste. (I'm just salting and peppering each serving.)

There are 6-8 large helpings of bigos in this recipe. I had some for Thursday lunch and left the casserole bubbling away on "1" until I came back from Polish class and had more for supper. (B.A. had had his by then.) I left the pot on the chilly windowsill overnight. Yesterday, after I returned--dead tired--from teaching Ancient Greek class, I put the casserole back on the burner, brought it to a boil, turned the heat down to "1" and napped for an hour or so. Then I had a big bowl of bigos for lunch, and it was splendid. I turned the heat off, and B.A. turned it on again to get hot bigos for his Easter Friday supper. Before we went to bed, I put the remainder--enough for three helpings--in the fridge.

It's supposed to be served with dark bread and/or boiled white potatoes. This is probably a good idea, keeping you from compulsively eating too much bigos. If you know anything about Polish cooking, you are probably amazed that the only herb used is a bay leaf, but I assume this is because there is so much flavour in the mushrooms, prunes and kielbasach. As for how the dried out lamb became so squishy and delectable, I can only guess that fresh cabbage + preserved cabbage = magic.

*Anti-sauerkraut note: Vinegar makes Benedict Ambrose nauseous, so I was delighted to inform him of the many times it is condemned in bigos recipes. To preserve cabbage, Poles usually just stuff it in jars with salt and let nature carry on. However, commercial giants cheat, so if you are cooking for someone who hates vinegar as much as B.A. does, check the label on the jar. Vinegar in Polish is "ocet." Due to commercial use of ocet, I had to make our own horseradish sauce this Easter, so thanks to my brother Nulli for the awesome food processor. Grating raw horseradish by hand would have been a beast.


  1. This has inspired me. I have no special problems with vinegar, but I also have vague memories from somewhere of delicious pickled, slightly sweet cabbage that was clearly made without it. I'm now determined to try to make some and have found several appealing recipes online.


  2. Yummy yummy yum! B.A. won't eat it either, but he can eat yogurt, cheese and other fermented things, so a good soaking takes any taint of pickle right out of the salted cabbage. (Personally I LOVE pickles and a LOT of other things B.A. can't abide.)