Nouvelle cuisine has its place, but I prefer food with a long and storied history, especially when the recipe and story come from a dear friend. But this recipe does not begin in her kitchen. It begins on a winter road trip along the Crowsnest Highway between Alberta and British Columbia.
After a long day of driving, and a snowstorm in the forecast, my husband and I settled into a cosy motel in the mountain town of Creston, B.C., then ventured out for a bite to eat. The proprietor of the motel had recommended a Polish restaurant known for its home cooking and old-country recipes.
I was not unfamiliar with Polish cuisine. Several years before, we had travelled in Poland, eating on the cheap at cafeteria-style restaurants called Milk Bars where (given the language barrier) we could conveniently point at the foods we wished to eat. I filled my tray with perogies and kielbasa, pork and dumplings, borscht and barley soup. But I did not discover bigos until that cold night in Creston.
Bigos (bee’-go’s) was described on the menu as a beef and sauerkraut stew. But as I ate it, I was less than impressed with the thin broth and tiny bits of ground beef. It was tasty, but I couldn’t help thinking, “I could do better.”
I also thought, “I could make this with Prairie ingredients.” Chunks of beef, wild dried mushrooms, locally made kielbasa and good old-fashioned sauerkraut. In other words, tap the local bounty for a taste of world cuisine.
When I got home, I called my friend Eva Slywestrowicz, who came to Canada with her husband, Tomas, and two children in the early 1980s, when Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain. When I asked her about bigos, she was instantly nostalgic, taken back to her childhood and a frosty winter’s eve when friends and family rode a horse-drawn sleigh through the forest, to a clearing in the woods where a pot of bigos steamed over an open fire.
“Someone went ahead to prepare the bonfire,” she said. “There was bigos and bread, vodka and wine. And hot chocolate for the children. It was a special time.”
Bigos is made for sharing. It was often made after a special meal such as Christmas or Easter, when the remains of a roast found new life in the stew pot. It usually has two (or more) kinds of meat including sausage, along with cabbage and sauerkraut, wild mushrooms and tomatoes, fresh or preserved. It’s lightly sweetened with thick plum jam or honey.
Between meals, the stew pot was kept at the back of the wood stove or chilling in the porch, augmented now and then with more leftovers, thus creating a “perpetual stew” that was ready for reheating for hungry appetites. It was traditional to serve bigos to guests, especially those who dropped by without warning or who had travelled a long way in the cold.
Like many old familiar recipes, there are as many variations of bigos as there are cooks. In other words, do your own thing, sample as you go, adjusting the various ingredients to suit their availability and your taste. However, there is one universally accepted tenet of a really good bigos: it’s always better reheated on the second day, and even better on the third or fourth. A good pot of bigos could last a week or more, improving with each new day.
Now that’s food with a warm and storied history.
- 1/2 c. dried mushrooms
- 1-1/2 c. boiling water
- 1/4 c. vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 1 tsp. paprika OR 2 juniper berries, crushed
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1-1/2 tsp. pepper
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1/2 lb. bacon, chopped
- 1 lb. smoked sausage, sliced
- 1 c. leftover roast meat
- 6-8 canned tomatoes, chopped
- 1/2 medium cabbage head, shaved
- 1/2 lb. sauerkraut
- 2 tbsp. plum jam or honey
Soak mushrooms in boiling water to soften. Heat oil in a stew pot. Cook onion until soft. Stir in paprika or juniper berries, salt and pepper. Add garlic and bacon. When bacon and onions are cooked, add the rest of the meat, tomatoes, cabbage, sauerkraut, mushrooms and mushroom water. Add enough water to not quite cover. Cover and simmer for several hours, until the cabbage is soft. Stir in plum jam or honey.
Bigos is traditionally served with whole wheat bread and a glass of chilled vodka.