Bigos, Polish Hunter’s Stew

A national dish of Poland, bigos is a traditional meat-and-cabbage stew, often referred to as a hunter’s stew. The history of bigos stretches back to the 14th century: supposedly, Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila, who became king of Poland, served it to his hunting-party guests. The stew is also mentioned in Pan Tadeusz, an epic poem written by Adam Mickiewicz in the 19th century:

In the pots warmed the bigos; mere words cannot tell
Of its wondrous taste, colour and marvellous smell.
One can hear the words buzz, and the rhymes ebb and flow,
But its content no city digestion can know.
To appreciate the Lithuanian folksong and folk food,
You need health, live on land, and be back from the wood.

Without these, still a dish of no mediocre worth
Is bigos, made from legumes, best grown in the earth;
Pickled cabbage comes foremost, and properly chopped,
Which itself, is the saying, will in ones mouth hop;
In the boiler enclosed, with its moist bosom shields
Choicest morsels of meat raised on greenest of fields;
Then it simmers, till fire has extracted each drop
Of live juice, and the liquid boils over the top,
And the heady aroma wafts gently afar.

(You’ll notice that historically, bigos is actually more Lithuanian than Polish!)

Bigos, Polish Hunter's Stew

The recipe’s pretty flexible, but one requirement is that there should be lots of different meats — hence the figurative meaning of bigos in Polish, “big mess”. The more festive the occasion, the more varied the composition. Pork, beef, and lamb are all good, as well as game meats like venison or hare, on account of the hunting connection. Smoked meats are also welcome, whether sausages, bacon, or ham. As for the cabbage, sauerkraut and fresh cabbage, or a mix thereof, are all acceptable.

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Venison Steak, Red Beet-Cranberry Purée, and Country Fried Potatoes

As we’ve eaten our way through the deer I killed last fall, I’ve started cooking some of the backstraps, those beautiful 20+-inch-long pieces of loin. I’m thrilled to say that this is without a doubt the best venison steak I’ve ever eaten, and it has totally justified spending three days in a tree strand. The meat is both pleasantly gamy and butter-tender, thus surpassing beef filet mignon. And unlike restaurant servings that often consist of one tiny little medallion, for once quality comes with quantity! 

Summer may just have started, but read this post again in a month when the temperature hits 100 F and your AC breaks down. Imagine yourself in your mythical Russian dacha in the fall. After a fructuous hunt some previous day, you decide to hit the woods again to look for mushrooms after last night’s storm, and fill a basket within a few hours. You happen to walk by a cranberry bush on your way home, and fill another basket, patting yourself on the back for never leaving the house without two empty baskets. Before going into the kitchen, you stop in your garden, where, of course, you always grow beautiful red beets. And you still have potatoes from the last harvest. Skipping the part where you milk the cow, you collect the cream and make butter, you contemplate nature’s bounty as you pause between two chapters of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and you notice, almost in passing, that you now have all the ingredients for a dish that combines the five tastes: steak that will be properly seasoned with salt, a beet-cranberry purée that’s acidic, bitter, and sweet at the same time, and umami-packed mushrooms.

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Venison and Root Vegetable Tourtière

Some readers may remember the tourtière du lac from M. Wells Steakhouse, a debauchery of game meat encased in pie crust that fits quite well with my somewhat idealized conception of Eastern European cuisine — the one wherein everyone hunts for their own food, and then spends their days making excessive yet elaborate recipes overflowing with meat, root vegetables, rich sauces, and pie crust.

As much as I loved the idea, I was a little disappointed that the various meats in M. Wells’ version were hard to distinguish from one another and suggested offering fewer meats, with variations on texture instead. Putting my money where my mouth is, I started working on my own venison-centric version.

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Venison and Beet Sausages

I’ve already posted recipes for goose sausageslake trout sausages, salmon sausages (with beef fat). With two deer in the freezer, venison sausages were the natural thing to do next, and I might very well come up with more than one version. Today’s venison sausages are made with beets.

Beets contain a flavor compound called geosmin that’s responsible for their earthy taste. In fact, the word geosmin comes from “earthy smell” in Greek. This is the same compound that you find in red wine with earthy notes, and fish with a muddy taste (more on this here). I couldn’t find a list of the flavor compounds in venison, but in my sausages, the smell from the beets serves as a subtle reminder of the deer’s natural habitat. While you can’t really pinpoint the beet flavor in the final product, you do taste something that complements the flavorful venison meat.

Venison Sausages

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Venison and Potato Latke Burgers with Vodka-Battered Vegetables

A whole deer, even if you keep the backstraps and legs whole, yields a lot of ground meat, mostly from the neck and the belly. This is nothing to worry about: these are the perfect cuts to make burgers. All you need is a good repertoire of burger recipes. And of course, if you don’t like venison, ground beef from your favorite butcher or CSA (what, you don’t have a CSA???) will do.

Venison and Potato Latke Burger

I’ve already blogged about Bohemian Venison Burgers and Hungarian Lángos Goulash Burgers. This time, I’m doing a Polish / Belarusian / Ukrainian version. Hey, with enough deer meat, I might post one burger recipe for each country of the Eastern Bloc!

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Abkhazian Venison Loin with Blackberry Sauce and Cheese Polenta

Back when I wrote of my adventures in wild Abkhazia, I talked about shashlyk, spices, cheese, honey, and wine. And of course lodochka (aka Adjaran khachapuri). But there can be more to Abkhazian cuisine. Some time ago, I published a recipe for Honey Cake Gagra with Mandarin and Black Tea. Here is another original recipe that combines many local flavors into a more elaborate dish.

  • Yes, there are deer in Abkhazia. I even remember that the driver who picked us up at the Ingur border was a hunter. I suppose that people have got to find a use for all their guns, now that they’ve (sort of) got their independence!
  • The idea for a blackberry sauce comes from a sadly unidentified Abkhazian cookbook, though the recipe below is mostly adapted from Michel Roux’s Sauces. I believe the Abkhazian version contained garlic and adjika; I’m keeping it for another time.
  • The cheese polenta is called abista in Abkhazian. In Georgian it would be called elardji (it’s particularly popular in Mingrelia). The cornmeal is traditionally white, but yellow polenta works just as well. If you don’t have the courage to make your own cheese, and don’t have a Russian supermarket in your area, you can substitute mozzarella for the sulguni.

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Deer Hunting, and Eastern European Venison Cheese Steak Sandwich

Pulaski - Deer Creek Motel

After the debacle of 2012’s deer hunting season, when I spent 3 days on a tree stand and 3 nights in a tent in the middle of the Adirondacks without seeing a single deer or bear, and eventually rushed back home to NYC on deserted roads moments before Superstorm Sandy hit the shores… I needed a better plan for 2013.

I thought I was all set once I convinced huntsman Wayne to take me to a property on the Finger Lakes, a top deer-producing area in New York State, but fate decided otherwise. Only two months away from opening weekend, I suddenly found myself with no plans, no doe permits, and limited options…

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Seared Chops and Braised Shanks of Venison in Bautzen Sour Cherry Mustard Sauce with Perfect Fries

This recipe combines some rather eclectic culinary impressions from my recent trip to Eastern Germany: the sour-cherry mustard from Bautzen, Erich Honecker and his passion for hunting, the mulled wine of the Christmas markets, and potatoes in various forms — from rubbery dumplings to the fries served with currywurst. Let’s talk a bit more about each of them…

Bautzen Mustard

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Leg of Venison in Moscovite Sauce with Butternut Squash Varenyky

This recipe will probably remind you of my Venison Goulash and Potato Varenyky. And true, the dish follows the same structure — but with a radically different flavor profile:

  • The leg of venison, from the deer I killed last fall, is still here. I see no reason to change the marinade either, unless you want to replace the oxtail with venison bones.
  • The cooking time is somewhat different: I used a slightly hotter oven for a shorter duration. Both results were very tender and I’d really have to compare them side by side to pick my favorite (which I didn’t do, sorry). The challenge is that while maximum tenderness requires longer cooking times, maximum juiciness demands the opposite. Add in all the other elements of your recipe, and you get a problem with no clear solution. With the method I’m using here, and considering the fact that there are fewer elements to prepare than in my previous goulash, the recipe is slightly more approachable (read: it will take 3 days instead of 4).
  • The Moscovite sauce is something you would know by heart, had you studied your Escoffier like any self-respecting cook before the advent of nouvelle cuisine. This rather obscure sauce is a modified sauce poivrade particularly suited to accompany venison. I made some changes to streamline the preparation with the rest of this recipe. I haven’t found any good explanation that connects the ingredients to Moscow (neither Malaga nor the golden raisins scream Russia to me), but the name of the sauce itself more than justifies the presence of this post on my blog, right? RIGHT? Speaking of Malaga, it’s not always easy to find, so you can use Marsala instead — I guarantee you the result will be just as Muscovite :)
  • This time, the varenyky are filled with a butternut squash mixture. The filling is loosely inspired by the pumpkin manty I’ve eaten in Uzbekistan, but I figured the traditional manty shape would be too fragile for mixing the dumplings with the rest of the dish.

Russian Cuisine - Leg of Venison in Moscovite Sauce with Pumpkin Varenyky

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Venison Goulash and Potato Varenyky

With this recipe, I’m killing two old Eastern European birds with one stone. The combination isn’t just a gimmick, though; the two dishes actually work really well together!

The venison goulash uses one of the forelegs of the deer I killed last season. This is not a Hungarian gulyás, but rather the kind of winter goulash you would eat in Czech Republic or Austria — my recipe was inspired by something I found in Kurt Gutenbrunner’s Neue Cuisine. I recommend cooking it a day in advance, so that the flavors can blend overnight.

The unusual way the leg is marinated (by being plunged in boiling stock first) comes from Alain Senderens’ Canard Apicius 2010. Senderens claims that his method gets better results than sous-vide cooking. I had previously tried it on a roasted leg of deer and was really impressed, not to mention that I wouldn’t know how to cook a whole leg sous-vide in my home kitchen! Even if the long, gentle cooking of the goulash is likely to tenderize any tough joint of meat, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to use the Senderens method, especially since I planned to marinate the leg anyway. If you don’t have a whole deer leg, you can buy venison osso buco (here, for example), shorten the marinating time to one day, and scale the recipe accordingly.

Potato varenyky are Ukrainian dumplings similar to Polish pierogi but not fried. I found out they have a bit of a cult following, and several monuments have been erected to their glory. For this recipe, I am using the same rich filling as for my knishes. If you think of pierogi as a poorman’s dish made of potatoes, flour, and water, try these and have your mind changed. :) Of course, you could choose to make them without the goulash, and serve them with sour cream and fried onion as tradition dictates. If you do prepare together, the proportions below yield about four varenyky per plate, but you could decide to serve slightly fewer (or more).

Lazy Boris’ Corner:
Take a taxi to Korzo Haus. Sorry my recipe takes so long, but when you’ve spent 12 hours freezing in a tree stand to kill your deer, you’re not gonna rush the cooking!

Beef stock
Yields about 2 qt

1 1/2 lb oxtail
olive oil
4 oz peeled carrot, large dice
9 oz peeled onion, large dice
9 oz cored red pepper, large dice
1 garlic clove
16 oz red wine
3 cloves
3 peppercorns
1 juniper berry
1 cardamom pod
6 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
42 oz water

  • In a pressure cooker over high heat, sauté the oxtail in olive oil until brown on all sides. Add the carrot, onion, red pepper and garlic, and stir for 2-3 minutes. Add the red wine, cloves, peppercorns, juniper berry, cardamom, thyme and bay leaf, and simmer for another 2-3 minutes.
  • Add the water, cover, bring to pressure, then cook under pressure for 1 hour. Let cool for 30 minutes and pass through a chinois.

Marinated deer leg
Yields about 6 servings

1 deer foreleg, about 4 lb
2 qt beef stock

  • Chop the deer leg in half at the joint.
  • In a pot large enough to contained the two pieces covered with beef stock, bring the stock to a boil. Add the deer leg and let sit for 3 minutes. Remove the leg from the stock, then let the stock cool.
  • Return the leg to the pot, cover and refrigerate for at least 2 days.

Venison goulash
Yields 6 servings

16 oz peeled onion
3 peeled garlic cloves
8 oz peeled celery root
8 oz peeled carrot
3 tbsp sweet Hungarian paprika
1/2 tsp piment d’espelette
1 tsp ground anise
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground caraway
1 tsp ground allspice
marinated deer leg
salt
black pepper, ground
olive oil
2 tbsp tomato paste
40 oz marinade liquid
2 tsp thyme leaves
3 oz sour cream

  • Slice the onion and garlic very thinly using a mandoline.  Chop the celery root and carrot into a brunoise (the mandoline can also help you do half of this work).
  • In a saucepan over medium heat, heat the paprika, piment d’espelette, anise, coriander, cumin, caraway and allspice for 3 minutes, shaking regularly. Reserve.
  • Chop the deer leg into a total of 6 pieces. Season with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in an oven-proof pot over high heat, then sauté the venison until brown on all sides and reserve.
  • In the same pot over medium heat, sauté the onion and garlic until soft, then add the spices and stir for 2 minutes. Add the celery root, carrot and tomato paste, and cook for 5 more minutes.
  • Return the meat to the pot, add the marinade and thyme, and bring to a boil. Cover with a lid slightly ajar, and cook in a 200 F oven for 6 to 8 hours, until very tender. Let rest for 30 minutes.
  • Remove the meat from the pot, and reduce the sauce over high heat by about 1/3.
  • Use a hand blender directly in the pot to blend some, but not all of the chunks — you want the sauce to have a thick, coarse texture. If you don’t have a hand blender, just transfer 1/3 to 1/2 of the sauce and chunks to a regular blender, process until smooth, and return to the pot.
  • Mix in the sour cream, return the meat to the pot, and reserve.

Pasta dough
Yields slightly over 6 servings (24 varenyky)

6 oz flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1 tbsp olive oil

  • In the bowl of an electric mixer fit with the paddle attachment, place half of the flour, plus the salt, egg, egg yolks and olive oil. Mix over low speed until homogeneous, scraping down the sides with a spatula. Add the rest of the flour and mix again until it forms a smooth paste.
  • Transfer to a floured surface, and knead with your hands for about 3 minutes. If necessary, add a little bit more flour until the dough doesn’t stick. Wrap in plastic and let rest for 30 minutes.

Potato purée
Yields slightly over 6 servings (24 varenyky)

8 oz peeled Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1″ slices
salt
1 oz sour cream
2.5 oz butter
1 pinch black pepper
1 pinch ground nutmeg

  • Bring a pot of unsalted water to 175 F. Add the potatoes, and cook for 30 minutes, maintaining the water temperature at 160 F (if you use a lot of water and cover the pot with a lid, the temperature should remain almost constant without you doing anything). Transfer the potatoes to a bowl of ice water, and let cool completely.
  • Bring the pot of water up to a boil and salt the water. Add the potatoes and simmer until cooked.
  • Pass through a food mill fit with the finest disk; if necessary, use some of the sour cream to get the grinding going. Mix the potatoes with the sour cream, butter, black pepper and nutmeg, then push the mixture through a sieve — you can either pass it through a conical sieve with a ladle, or rub it through a drum sieve with a spatula. Transfer to a plastic container, and refrigerate.

Potato varenyky
Yields slightly over 6 servings (24 varenyky)

pasta dough
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp water
potato purée
semolina
salt
1 oz butter

  • Using a pasta machine, roll the dough to the finest setting. I recommend proceeding in batches (cut the dough into 4 pieces) so that the pasta doesn’t dry out. Mix the egg yolk and water to make an egg wash.
  • Cut 24 discs (6 discs in each batch) using a 3 1/2″ cutter. Brush each disc with the egg wash, place a spoonful of potato purée in the center, then fold into a half-moon shape and seal the edges with your fingers. Each one should have a generous amount of potato, but not so much that it’s difficult to seal properly. Keep the varenyky on a sheet tray dusted with semolina.
  • Cook the varenyky in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain, toss into a bowl with the butter, cover with plastic wrap and reserve.
  • If you plan to serve them on their own, however, cook until soft and serve immediately.

Caramelized onions
Yields 6 servings

1 oz butter
1 oz water
6 cipollini onions, peeled

  • Place the butter and water in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the onions, cover with a lid, and cook for 45 minutes, flipping the onions a couple times along the way.
  • Remove the lid and cook for another 10-15 minutes. If the liquid is completely reduced, add a little bit of water. Remove from the heat and reserve.

Assembly
Yields about 6 servings

potato varenyky
venison goulash
18 baby carrots of various colors, peeled
salt
caramelized onions
2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

  • Add the potato varenyky to the venison goulash, cover, and reheat on low heat.
  • Blanch the carrots in a little bit of salted boiling water until almost cooked, then transfer to a small saucepan with the caramelized onions, and reheat on low heat.
  • Serve with a generous amount of sauce, and sprinkle with parsley.