WHEN POPE John Paul II visited this continent for the first time last spring his flight landed him in Mexico City in time for dinner. He did not sit down to a first meal of enchiladas, frijoles negros and tacos. Mexico City has a couple of good Polish restaurants, the chefs of which prepared the pontiff the grandest of Polish dishes, the one that makes the heart of every true Pole beat faster -- bigos. And the pope, as all the world knows, is a true Pole.
Bigos belongs to a wide range of dishes, common to many countries with ancient cultures, known as "hunter's stew." Each originally was prepared, probably several hundred years ago, in a big, black, iron "witch's cauldron" hanging from a tripod over a campfire. In those far-off days when large parts of Poland still were covered by primeval forest, hunting trips often lasted for days and the party expected to dine in the evening on at least part of the day's bag.
So the mixed meats were boiled in the pot with cabbage, sauerkraut and herbs and what was left over was boiled up again the next day, to prevent it from turning sour, with fresh pieces of game meat added. Each day, the flavor of the stew grew better and stronger, until, traditionally, on the last evening of the hunt, the feast was magnificent. Those ancient hunters probably didn't realize it, but they had invented the basic technique of concentrating and sharpening the flavor of a sauce by reducing it with repeated boiling.
So the tradition developed of preparing a large pot of bigos several days in advance, then boiling it at least once each day to keep the stew edible, while gradually improving flavor. This is still the first trick of any great bigos.
The second essential is to have -- as did the ancient hunters -- a good assortment of meats. Therefore it's impossible to prepare it properly for as few as four persons -- the minimum is about 12 -- and, if you have enough big pots it's almost as easy for a party of 100. Incidentally, it will absorb any amount of cooked, leftover meats from a previous feast. The proportions that go into a bigos are flexible.
What kind of meat you put in is less important than having a good variety. The ideal is to have quite a small quantity each, boneless and lean, of any or all of the following: bacon, beef, ham, lamb, pork, veal, chicken, duck, goose, partridge, pheasant, quail, boar, hare, rabbit, venison. The bigos also should include one or more of the various types of Polish sausage, including kielbasa.
Apart from the labor of finding, assembling and precooking so many different ingredients, there are no technical complications about preparing a bigos. In fact, it offers the enormous simplification that you have little to prepare on the day of your party. POLISH BIGOS MYSLIWSKI (12 servings) 3-pound green cabbage 3 tart cooking apples, cored, sliced, not peeled 1 cup sour cream 2 teaspoons wine vinegar Coarse crystal or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 2-ounce package dried wild mushrooms, Polish Eastern European, Chinese or French 1 cup dry white wine 5 pounds best-quality prepared sauerkraut Up to 14 tablespoons butter 1 1/2 pounds boneless, lean fresh pork, cut into 2-inch cubes 1/2 pound salt pork, cut into 3/8 inch dice 3 cups yellow onions, finely chopped 1/2 pound very lean, dark-smoked bacon, rind removed, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch cubes 1 1/2 pound boneless and lean top-round beef steak, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes About 3/4 pound each of other meats, as desired, all boneless, lean and cut into cubes, chosen from the following lamb, ham, chicken, veal, duck, goose, partridge, pheasant, game birds, rabbit, boar, venison 1 pound Polish kielbasa sausage, or other Eastern European regional sausage, skinned and sliced 1/2 inch thick 2 whole bay leaves 4 whole cloves 1 teaspoon whole juniper berries 20 whole black peppercorns Up to 5 cups good, strong red wine, preferable California cabernet sauvignon or French burgundy Up to 2 cups dry Sercial madeira 3/4 cup Italian tomato paste
Average time required: The preparation is spread over three days: first day, about 2 1/2 hours of active work, about 2 hours of unsupervised simmering; second day, about 1 1/2 hours of reheating and unsupervised simmering; third day, when the bigos is served, about 2 hours of reheating and unsupervised simmering. TWO DAYS AHEAD
Preparing the cabbage: Wash cabbage, pull off and discard the tough outer leaves, quarter, cut away and discard core, and shred the quarters finely. Put it into a large soup pot and add 2 quarts of boiling water. Heat the pot back to gentle simmering cover tightly, then continue simmering until the cabbage is soft -- usually in about 1 hour. Turn off heat and gently blend into the cabbage the apples, sour cream, vinegar, salt and pepper. Cover and hold on stove.
Preparing and cooking the sauerkraut:
Place dried mushrooms into saucepan, then cover with the white wine. Gently simmer, covered, until mushrooms are soft, usually in 10 to 15 minutes, then remove from heat. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, cut mushrooms with a small, sharp knife into narrow strips. Put strips back into the wine, cover and let stand.
Empty sauerkraut (batch by batch, if necessary) into a standing colander and press and squeeze out as much tart liquid as possible. Rinse the kraut under running cold water and, again, remove as much liquid as possible. Place the sauerkraut into a second soup pot, adding about 3 cups of cold water, the mushroom strips and their wine. Gently simmer, covered, for 45 minutes, stirring about every 15 minutes to make sure mixture is not sticking to pan. If necessary, add more water, half a cup at a time.
Preparing the pork:
Over medium-high frying heat, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a frypan. Add the cubes of fresh pork, turning the pieces (preferably with a wooden fork and spoon to avoid pricking them and losing their juice), until they are browned on all sides. Remove the pork cubes, salt and pepper them, and hold aside. Add bacon to the frypan and heat, stirring until it has given up most of its fat and is well browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat with salt pork. Place chopped onions in pan and fry until they are just wilted and slightly browned. Remove with slotted spoon and hold.
Completing the sauerkraut:
As soon as the sauerkraut has simmered for 45 minutes, stir it again with a wooden spoon and check the bottom to see if it has dried out. If it has, add 1/2 to 1 cup of water. Carefully but thoroughly stir in the fresh pork and bacon. Continue the gentle simmering, covered, for 30 minutes, then blend in the salt pork and browned onions. Continue gentle simmering, covered, for 30 minutes.
Preparing the remaining meats:
While sauerkraut is simmering, put the frypan back on medium-high frying heat, with the now-well-flavored fat from previous operations still in the pan, plus more tablespoons of butter, as needed. When the pan is hot, add the cubes of beef, quickly brown on all sides, lift out and drain on paper towels, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Repeat browning operation with other meats, softening cuts first by simmering in aromatic bouillon. If any meats already are cooked, they do not need to be browned in the frypan. The sausage slices also should not be browned, but held ready with the other meats.
Final assembly of the great pot:
Transfer the cabbage mixture from the soup pot to a big pot. With a slotted spoon, remove pork cubes from the sauerkraut pot, cut each cube into slices, and return to the big pot. Add meats to the big pot, cutting all but the sausage to bite size. Spread all the meats evenly as a layer on top of the vegetables. Add bay leaves, cloves, juniper berries, black peppercorns and 2 1/2 cups of red wine. Bring to gentle simmer and cover, checking every 15 to 20 minutes and turning the heat down slightly, if necessary to prevent boiling, for an hour.
Remove from heat and let bigos cool very slowly at room temperature.Do not attempt to refrigerate it overnight -- the pot probably is too large, anyway -- but keep it covered, with a thick cloth rather than the lid, in the coolest spot you can find. ONE DAY BEFORE
The traditional reheating:
Bring the bigos back up to gentle simmering. Remember that you have a large volume of ingredients, so you must expect the reheating to take a long time, probably an hour or more. Do not try to hurry the process over very high heat, or you may burn the bottom layer. During the reheating, gently stir in 1 cup of the Sercial madeira. When the bigos is close to simmering, taste it for seasoning and add any spice ingredients you feel may be needed. Simmer gently, ocvered, for 30 minutes. Then repeat the slow cooling and overnight storage at room temperature. ON THE DAY
The final reheating, adjusting and serving:
Reheat bigos for serving. In a small mixing bowl, blend with a wire whisk the tomato paste and 1/2 cup of red wine. Stir, carefully and thoroughly, into the big pot. When bigos is fairly hot, adjust seasonings, if necessary. Simmer gently, covered, for an hour. (This timing is flexible -- if your guests are a bit late, you can run it longer.) If, at the end, there is too much liquid, let bigos bubble with the lid off for a few minutes. If there is not enough liquid, add equal quantities of madeira and red wine. Serve the bigos piping hot in warmed soup plates or bowls, making sure that each diner gets a balanced selection of ingredients. The traditional accompaniments are black pumpernickel bread and red wine.