Bigos (Polish Hunter’s Stew)

Q. What do sauerkraut, wild mushrooms, prunes, and marjoram have in common?
A. They are all essential ingredients in my version of Bigos (Polish Hunter’s Stew).

Bigos is often considered the national dish of Poland, and is one of those ethnic dishes where each family has their own variation. Most recipes for Bigos will include white cabbage or sauerkraut; wild mushrooms, and lots of meat including smoked sausage, pork or ham, beef, and sometimes poultry or game like venison, boar or rabbit. This is definitely not for the Vegan crowd!

Bigos is definitely one of those recipes that has many ingredients and takes time to prepare and cook. But don’t let that keep you from attempting to make this stew since the result is a beautiful, rich, heart-warming pot of family tradition. 

Although historically Bigos is cooked in a kettle over an open fire, today it is prepared in the oven or more conveniently in an electric slow-cooker.  (I use one of  those counter top electric turkey roasters.) The slow cooking give the flavors a chance to meld together and allows the meats and vegetables to cook down to a thick, hearty, deep flavored stew with a moist but not “wet” or soupy consistency. Traditionalists say you should not stir Bigos, but keep it in layers (I usually stir mine toward the end of the cooking). Some families cook the Bigos for several hours one day, cool it over night (sometimes wrapped in newspapers and left outside on a cold night) and then reheat for several hours the next day before serving. Like many good ethnic recipes it is much better the next day and gets better with age.

So, what’s a third generation Italian-American doing blogging about Bigos? Well, my wife’s family is Polish and for the past several years I have been making Bigos for our annual Wigilia (Christmas Eve supper). Although Wigilia is traditionally “meatless” featuring a variety of  traditional fish, noodle, and vegetable dishes — our family has indulged the younger members by adding a few meats, like home-made kielbasa and my Bigos. The recipe below is 1/3 of what I typically prepare for Wigilia — but it is a good amount for a family and will fit in a large 7 to 8 quart slow cooker (crock pot).

Bigos (Polish Hunter’s Stew)

2 TBSP Bacon Fat or Butter or Olive Oil
1 lb. Sauerkraut (from a bag or jar) – rinsed and squeezed dry

1 large Yellow Onion – cut in half and thinly sliced
1/2 small White Cabbage – thinly sliced or shredded

2 Carrots – peeled and shredded
6 Pitted Prunes – chopped
1 Granny Smith Apple – peeled, cored and chopped (optional)
½ lb. Fresh Mushrooms – sliced
1 pkg. Dried Mushrooms (found in many grocery stores) – soaked, drained & chopped
1 can Petite Diced Tomatoes – drained
1 TBSP Paprika, or to taste

2 tsp Marjoram, or to taste
1 tsp Granulated Garlic, or to taste
1 tsp Freshly Ground Black Pepper, or to taste
1-2 Bay Leaf
Salt to taste (be careful to taste since kielbasa and sauerkraut can be salty)

1 lb. Venison (I count on my hunting friends) – cut into 1” cubes
1 lb. Beef Chuck (i.e. pot roast) – trimmed and cut into 1” cubes
1 lb. Pork Shoulder (i.e. pork butt roast) – trimmed and cut into 1” cubes
1 lb. Smoked Kielbasa – sliced into ½” rounds
1/2 lb. Smoked Ham (optional) – cut into 1” cubes
1 cup Dry Red Wine – traditionally Madeira (I use whatever I have)
Beef broth – as needed to keep moist but not “wet” while cooking

1. Preheat oven (if using) to 300 degrees F – or preheat slow cooker on high.
2. In a large heavy frying pan, cook sauerkraut and onions in butter, oil, or bacon fat until just starting to brown. Stir in cabbage until wilted (abut 5 minutes) and transfer to slow cooker or large roaster.
3. Layer the shredded carrots, prunes, apple, (both) mushrooms, and tomatoes over the cabbage.
4. Mix paprika, marjoram, garlic, pepper and allspice together in a small bowl. Sprinkle half spice mixture over cabbage.
5. Add the sliced sausage and cubed ham in a layer over the vegetables.
6. Add the venison, pork and beef (in that order) in layers over the sausage.
7. Add bay leaves and season with remaining spice mixture. 
8. Add at least 1 cup liquid (½ wine and ½ broth) – add more (1 cup at a time) as needed during cooking to keep moist but not wet.
9. IN OVEN: Cook covered at 300 degree F for 3-4 hours, stirring once every 1-2 hours.
    SLOW COOKER: Cook covered on high for 5-6 hours, stirring only once after 3 hours.
10. When finished the Bigos should be very thick, moist and meaty – not like a soup or gravy type stew. Serve Bigos in a bowl with some Polish rye bread or traditionally with mashed potatoes on the side. Przepyszny! (Yum!)

There you have it, my third generation Italian-American version of Bigos (Polish Hunter’s Stew). Like me, you may have to make it a couple of times to get the ingredients and seasoning to your particular taste, but I hope you enjoy this incredible Polish traditional dish. Even if it doesn’t end up on your Holiday table, give it a try soon… and from my family to yours Happy Holidays!

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”


Dan’s Porchetta

My Dad, Vinnie Lista, was a true pork aficionado… he loved everything pork. Whether it was a chop, steak, tenderloin, cutlet, ribs, sausage, ham, bacon or any of the many charcuteries produced from the humble pig — Dad enjoyed them all. But his definite favorite was a simple roast pork, and often for a Holiday, instead of traditional cured and smoked ham, Dad would roast a fresh ham (which is the same shank or shoulder cut but not brined or smoked). So growing up I learned to appreciate the savory versatility of that “other white meat.”

Over the years I have made many different pork dishes, but one that I have come to really appreciate is the distinctly Italian Porchetta.

Porchetta (pronounced por-ketta) is a traditional Italian roast made from a boned whole pig — stuffed with fennel, garlic and other seasonings, heavily salted, and cooked over an open fire for up to 8 hours. The result is a crispy, fatty, juicy, salty, spicy, savory bundle of meaty deliciousness! 

authentic Italian porchetta (online image)

Originating in Central Italy, porchetta is one of those regional foods that has cultural significance and is considered a prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale (PAT) and is closely governed by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture. Porchetta is popular throughout Italy and is often associated with celebrations. Porchetta is a common street food in Rome and is often sold from food carts or vans, especially during festivals and Holidays.

Porchetta came to America with early twentieth century immigrants and has become extremely popular in Philadelphia where it is often sold as “roast pork” sandwiches served on a roll topped with cooked greens or broccoli rabe and sharp provolone cheese.

One of the characteristics of porchetta is the crispy roasted fat and skin (cracklins) that form on the outside and keeps the meat moist and tender. Many scaled down recipes (you’re probably not going to roast a whole pig) use pork belly wrapped around a pork loin — but my version uses the readily available and inexpensive pork shoulder roast (often called pork butt or Boston butt) which has enough fat to make it work.

This recipe takes a little work to butterfly the roast, season, marinate, and roast… but it is well worth the time and effort.

Dan’s Porchetta 

Prep time: Note this is a 2 day process – active prep 30 minutes
Cook time: 2-3 hours 
Serves: 6-8 depending on size of roast

5-8 lb. Bone-in (or boneless) Pork Butt Roast
Extra Virgin Olive Oil – as needed
Coarse Sea Salt – as needed
Coarse Ground Black Pepper – as needed
3-4 cloves Fresh Garlic  – minced
1 tsp Fennel Seeds – crushed
1 tsp Rosemary (fresh or dry)
1 tsp Sage Leaves (fresh or dry)
1 tsp Lemon Zest (fresh or dry)
1/2 tsp Oregano (fresh or dry)
1/2 tsp Crushed Red Pepper
Butchers Twine or 100% cotton string

1. If using a bone-in roast (least expensive) — use a sharp thin blade boning knife to remove the blade-bone being careful not to cut all the way through the meat. Then butterfly the roast so it opens up into a long rectangle — you may need to cut through some of the thicker parts as well (photo #1 above). You can find videos on how to debone and butterfly a roast on YouTube… or ask the butcher to butterfly it for you.
2. Lay the butterflied roast, fat side down on a large cutting board or your counter covered with parchment paper. Using a sharp knife score any thicker part or connective tissues to make it cook more evenly. Rub entire side of roast with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
3. In a small bowl combine minced garlic, fennel seed, rosemary, sage, lemon zest, oregano and red pepper (I used all dry herbs/spices) – sprinkle evenly over the roast.
4. Starting at the short end without the fat cap – roll the meat tightly, jelly roll style, until you have a tight roll with the seam on the bottom or side and the fat cap on top. With a very sharp knife, score the fat cap in a cross hatch pattern without cutting into the meat itself. Using butchers twine or 100% cotton string (or unflavored dental floss in a pinch) tie the roast every 2 inches (usually 2 or 3 ties) as in photo #2.
5. Place tied roast in pan (I use a disposable aluminum pan) and place in refrigerator loosely covered with parchment paper to age overnight.
6. Take roast out of refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking. Rub outside with olive oil and seasoning generously with salt.  Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
7. Place the roast in the preheated oven, center rack, for 15 minutes to sear the outside. Reduce oven to 300 degrees F and roast undisturbed another 2-3 hours until an instant read thermometer reaches at least 165 degrees. Remove from oven (photo #3) and let rest for 10 minutes before carving (photo #4).
8. Serve the Porchetta with mashed potatoes & pan seared Brussels sprouts. Magnifico!

There you have it, my version of Porchetta… I think my Dad would have loved this for Christmas dinner. Don’t be scared off by the extra work to make this, it really goes together easily. And although we don’t make it often, it is always a delicious treat, and leftovers make great Philly style sandwiches — just be sure to get some good sharp provolone from the deli to make it authentic.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”

Stuffed Bell Peppers

Now that Old Man Winter is sneaking around the corner, I find myself turning on the oven more often and craving comfort food more than usual, which brings me to today’s recipe, Stuffed Bell Peppers.

Growing up I remember eating stuffed peppers both at home and at Lista’s — where it was a “special” rather than a regular menu item. And it was always green bell peppers and it was always cooked in tomato sauce. The filling was pretty consistent too… ground beef, rice, chopped onion, and seasonings. At Lista’s the stuffed peppers would be deftly prepared, baked until just tender, and served covered in our famous sauce topped with Romano cheese.

But at home the process was much more involved. My mom, Doris, aside from being a wife, mother to five unruly kids, and an amazing elementary teacher, administrator, and tax accountant — was also a pretty good cook. Mom isn’t Italian like my Dad but comes from a more typical American melting pot family. So when cooking, Mom tended to stick with the basic meat and potato type meals like pot roast, beef stew, meatloaf, or stuffed peppers… and of course every casserole known to mankind! The funny thing was (well not so funny at the time) Mom didn’t have the training or experience of cooking large quantities and when she started a meal she would realize the mixing bowl or pan was too small and would have to switch up to larger and larger sizes in the process — leaving a vast wake of dirty dishes that us kids had to eventually clean up. Fortunately, with a few minor exceptions, Mom’s meals were delicious (none of us kids suffered from malnutrition) and Mom’s stuffed peppers were always a big hit.

Where did stuffed peppers originate? Well it seems many cultures have their own stuffed peppers, from the bharvan mirch of India to the chile relleno of Mexico, which have been around for centuries. However, in America it seems the classic stuffed pepper dates back to the 1800’s and were listed in the 1896 version of  “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book” written by Fannie Merritt Farmer. In that early recipe it states that green peppers were used, but today many choose the milder red, yellow or orange peppers. Actually all bell peppers start out green and most will eventually ripen to a different color.

And all peppers are members of the nightshade family, which also includes potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. Peppers (capsicum) were originally native only to Mexico, Central and South America, and typically were the hotter chili varieties. Columbus apparently discovered these peppers while seeking the then valuable black peppercorn (piper nigrum) which is a different species altogether. Columbus mistakenly named these hot chilies “peppers” and they have been called that since. The Bell Pepper (named for its bell like shape) is the only variety of pepper that does not produce capsaicin the compound which creates the heat in other varieties.

Okay, now that you are sufficiently schooled in the history of peppers how about the recipe?


Stuffed Bell Peppers

Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 60-90 minutes
Serves: 4-8 servings

2 TBSP Olive Oil
2 cloves Garlic – minced
1/2 medium Onion – finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 stalk Celery – finely chopped (about 1/4 cup)
1 tsp Salt
1 tsp Dry Basil
1/4 tsp Crushed Red Pepper
1 cup Chicken Broth (or water)
1 (6 oz) can Tomato Paste
1 (28 oz) can Crushed Tomatoes

4 large Bell Peppers (any color) – cut in half long way
1 1/2 lbs. lean Ground Beef – uncooked
1 1/2 cups Cooked Rice (I used leftovers from Chinese take-out)
1/2 med Onion – finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 Egg – beaten
1 TBSP Dry Parsley Flakes
1 tsp Italian Seasoning 

1 tsp Salt
1/2 tsp Black Pepper
Pecorino Romano Cheese for topping (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9×13 baking dish with cooking spray.
2. Cut peppers in half the long way (see photo above) remove seeds and membranes — set aside.
3. In a medium sauce pan, heat olive oil, garlic, onion and celery — cooking and stirring until vegetables are tender (about 5-10 minutes). Add salt, basil, and crushed red pepper and stir for one minute more. Add broth or water, tomato paste, and crushed tomatoes and whisk together until smooth. Remove from heat.
4. In a mixing bowl mix the raw ground beef, cooked rice, chopped onion, egg, parsley, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper until thoroughly combined. Stuff each pepper half with equal portions of beef/rice mixture.
5. Ladle half the sauce into the bottom of the prepared baking dish, arrange stuffed peppers (meat side up) in sauce, spoon remaining sauce over top of peppers being careful not to over fill the pan. Top with Romano cheese if desired.
6. Place in preheated oven and bake for 60-90 minutes until peppers are tender and filling reaches at least 165 degrees on a quick read thermometer.
7. Serve topped with some of the sauce and more Romano cheese if desired. (We often eat the stuffed peppers 
as a meal just with a tossed salad — but they are great served with mashed potatoes, pasta, quinoa, or polenta on the side.)

There you have it, Stuffed Bell Peppers (my Mom’s way). I like the texture of these stuffed peppers using the raw beef mixture — like a mini meatloaf in a pepper cup. But if your family prefers a looser texture then cook the ground beef until crumbly in step #4 and then combine as directed. I also like cooking and eating these peppers with a lot of sauce. If you are concerned about then boiling over in the oven just place the baking dish on a rimmed cookie sheet. I hope you enjoy these stuffed peppers as much as we do… and stay warm this winter!

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”

Lista’s White Clam Sauce

In my very first post (6/11/17), I shared the sauce recipe from Lista’s Italian Cuisine. I mentioned that in those days we only served one type of sauce… but then I was reminded by my brother Bill that we also served a fabulous White Clam Sauce at Lista’s.

Spaghetti with white clam sauce (spaghetti alle vongole in bianco) is a popular dish in the Campania region of Italy — where my Grandpa Pat’s family is from. Much of Campania is coastal and so it’s common for the cuisine from that region to contain seafood, especially mussels, octopus, squid, shrimp, anchovies, and the tiny regional clams called vongole veraci. It’s those little clams that makes the sauce authentically Campania

However, at Lista’s, which was far from Campania, we made our clam sauce with what was readily available at the time, the more mundane canned clams. Still, the canned clams we used were of the highest quality and were very tender and full of flavor. At Lista’s the clam sauce was made with butter, clams, clam juice, garlic, parsley, and lots of Pecorino Romano cheese. This was made to order with the cooked spaghetti simmered in the sauce for several minutes before serving.

For this recipe I am using half olive oil and half butter; canned whole baby clams (to better match the original vongole veraci variety). Whole baby clams are readily available at grocery stores — you can leave them whole (my preference) or give them a quick chop with a sharp knife.

Also, I’m using some white wine (Pinot Grigio)… we didn’t add wine to the sauce at Lista’s but I have found that when I make it at home it adds a little brightness to the dish.

Lista’s White Clam Sauce

Prep time: 10 min
Cook time: 20-30 min
Serves: 4 dinner servings

2 TBSP Olive Oil

2 TBSP Butter
1/2 tsp Crushed Red Pepper
4 cloves Garlic – finely chopped
1 cup Dry White Wine (such as Pinot Grigio)
2 can (10 oz) Whole Baby Clams with Juice
Bottled Clam Juice as needed
1 lb. Spaghetti – cooked al dente
Salt and Black Pepper – to taste
1/4 cup Italian Parsley Leaves – chopped
1/4-1/2 cup Grated Pecorino Romano

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook spaghetti according to package directions for al dente (about 7-8 minutes).

2. Heat a large deep skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil and butter, red pepper, and garlic — cook until butter foams and garlic is translucent (about 3 minutes).
3. Add white wine and reduce for 1 minute, add clams and juice from cans and heat through. Season generously with salt and pepper.
4. Drain pasta. Add to skillet and toss with sauce 3 to 4 minutes, until pasta has absorbed some of the sauce and flavor — add in more bottled clam juice as needed to keep moist. Add parsley and Romano cheese and toss to coat. Serve immediately.

There you have it, Spaghetti with Lista’s White Clam Sauce. I hope you enjoy this simple but flavorful dish. You could add it to your Italian Christmas Eve tradition as one of the “Seven Fishes.” Serve with a Caesar style salad and some good crusty Italian bread. You could ‘fancy it up’ if you want by adding some other seafood like bay scallops or shrimp. 

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”