From the very get-go of planning my Cozy Holiday Potluck, I knew that I wanted to make Bigos Stew. This Polish hunter's dish is a real stick-to-your ribs kind of affair — pork and sausage (several kinds!), sauerkraut, porcini mushrooms, and a few glugs of good beer. It's a bit rich to justify for a weeknight meal, but for a midwinter party with a group of friends who love to eat, it's absolutely perfect.
Another reason why this isn't a weeknight meal is that it takes a solid afternoon to prepare. It's one of those stews that is built in layers, slowly, carefully, with great intent. Each ingredient gets its own turn on the heat before they all come together again for a good long simmer.
You want to go slowly here because that's how the magic happens. Cooking the bacon and then searing the pork and sausages in the bacon fat creates a mingling of smoke and sweet pork that is heavenly to smell, let alone taste. Then come the onions and the mushrooms — onions that get cooked until they're starting to melt and mushrooms that collapse into perfect tender morsels. Mix in the sauerkraut and the spices, let this pot simmer for a few hours, and I guarantee you won't have tasted anything quite as marvelous.
Sauerkraut in a stew might seem strange to you. After all, this is the stuff we put on sandwiches. You might worry that it will make the stew taste sour and strange. Trust me. It's all part of the magic. That sauerkraut turns as soft as silk in the stew. Far from clashing with the smoky pork, the sauerkraut's sourness gives the stew a whole new substrate of flavor that will make you wonder why sauerkraut ever gets used in anything else.
Bigos stew is a traditional hunter's stew, though I've never been clear on whether it was meant to sustain the hunters, welcome them home, or use up the scraps from the hunt itself. Maybe all three. Regardless, as the stew simmers, it's not a far stretch to imagine yourself in some isolated winter hunting lodge, thick-hewed beams of wood overhead and a roaring fire at your feet, anticipating a fantastic meal that's nearly ready for the table.
Make it, share it, love it. This is a stew to celebrate the dark, cold days of winter and to make you happy you have good friends with whom to share it.
Serves 12 to 15
1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1/2 pound thick-cut smoky bacon, diced
2 pounds pork butt or shoulder, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 pound smoked pork sausage, like smoked kielbasa, cut into thick slices
1 pound fresh pork sausage, cut into thick slices
12 ounces (1 1/2 cups) good amber beer or red wine
2 medium yellow onions, diced
12- to 16-ounces fresh mushrooms, like button or cremini, diced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 quart sauerkraut (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1 teaspoon whole all-spice berries
1 teaspoon whole juniper berries
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 bay leaf
1-2 cups chicken or beef stock
Salt and pepper
Heat the oven to 325°F with a rack in the lower-middle position.
Place the porcini mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with about a cup of tap water. Set aside to rehydrate while you prepare the rest of the stew
Warm a teaspoon of oil in a large (6-quart) Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook until all the bacon fat has rendered and the bacon is crispy. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Leave the bacon fat in the pot.
Season the pork with salt and pepper. Lay as many cubes as will fit in a single layer in the bottom of the Dutch oven. Sear without moving the cubes until golden, at least 2 minutes. Continue searing on all sides. Transfer the seared pork to the bowl with the bacon. Continue searing the remaining pork in batches — if at any time the pan becomes dry, add a few teaspoons of oil.
Sear the smoked sausage and fresh sausage in batches like the pork — if at any time the pan becomes dry, add a few tablespoons of oil.
By this point, there should be a thick, gummy, dark glaze on the bottom of the pan. Pour half of the beer into the pot and scrape at the glaze as it bubbles. Once the crust as dissolved, pour the remaining liquid over the seared sausages and pork.
Lower the heat to medium and film the bottom of the Dutch oven with oil. Add the onions and cook slowly until they have become very soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the fresh mushrooms and a half teaspoon of salt. Cook until the mushrooms have released all their liquid and the liquid has evaporated. Add the tomato paste and garlic, and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Pour the remaining beer into the pot and scrape up any glaze that has re-formed on the bottom of the pan. Drain the sauerkraut, reserving the juices for another purpose if desired. Add the drained sauerkraut and the seared meats to the pot and stir to combine.
Use a fork to remove the porcini mushrooms from their liquid. Chop them roughly and add them to the stew. Set a small strainer over a measuring cup and strain the liquid leftover from soaking the mushrooms to remove any grit. Pour the strained liquid into the stew.
Gather the all-spice berries, juniper berries, bay leaf, and caraway seeds in a tea ball or knot them in a square of cheesecloth. Stir them into the stew.
Check the level of the liquid in the stew. It should come about halfway up the side of the pan and you should just be able to see some liquid beneath the surface of the ingredients (the ingredients should not be completely submerged). If you need to add liquid, add some chicken or beef broth.
Bring the stew to a simmer. Cover and place the stew in the oven. Cook for 2 hours. Check the stew — if the pieces of pork are so tender that they fall easily apart when pieced with a fork, then the stew is ready. If not, place the cover back on and continue to cook in the oven; check the stew every 30 minutes until the pork is fork-tender.
At this point, the stew can be served immediately, or it can be cooled, refrigerated, and served the next day. This stew is often better the next day. To reheat, place the stew over low heat with the lid partially covering. Warm until the stew is steaming, then serve.