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Suddenly the air is different around here. The sun lays its rays at a new angle now. Its warming arms take longer to wrap themselves around my shivering shoulders. My bones feel denser, my brain heavier. I feel the change in my tummy even without the weather forecast bloke warning me of an upcoming winter storm.

WINTER STORM?? Aren’t we getting a tad dramatic? It’s still Southern California we’re talking about. Mother Nature came, coughed once or twice, and spat a few drops of rain on the ground. So much for the vicious and nut-cringing cold front, Mr. Weather Man.

Nevertheless, I can see the change of season in my kitchen as well. All the golden and ruby leaves fell and went. New vegetables arrived. Crimson cuts of beef begged to be braised in red wine with a harem of root vegetables, ending their poetic orgy as a hearty and gut-warming stew on a bed of toasted pearl barley…

Three days later a bowl of hot, mildly spicy, yet with a hint of sweet innocence BIGOS turned up on our table bringing bliss and comfort just like a Swedish massage followed by a plunge into a hot tub would.

WAIT, WHAT DID YOU CALL IT?

Repeat after me: BEE-GOHS. You got it. Bigos is a Polish staple, at least in my family. There isn’t a holiday, or any family gathering without a giant pot full of this steaming hot sauerkraut stew. Every cook has his/her method and thus certain details of its preparation differ. My mother always mixes white cabbage and sauerkraut in almost equal proportions along with a myriad of spices and a whole animal. I swear, she adds half a pig and anther half of a milking cow into her stew and cooks it all together for hours, or days if possible. What we end up with at the dinner table is pure magic.

When I first moved to California, I moved into a house shared with two other girls. The place was furnished, set, and very homey. I got homesick. I was still eating only vegan foods back then, and in order to cure my nostalgia I was reinventing my mama’s dishes sans any products having lived with a face. My Vegan Bigos was born, and it rocked the worlds of many. I substituted meat with tofu and tempeh, added a bunch of wild mushrooms, and let the goodness cook for hours and hours and hours.

The version I make today is even simpler. On average I use:

- about a quart of store-bought sauerkraut, rinsed under cold water, wrenched and then chopped

- 2 small leaks, washed properly as leeks should be washed, then chopped

- 1 large onion, cut into small to medium dice

- a few garlic cloves, finely chopped

- 2-3 half inch rings of uncured pancetta, diced

- 3 small carrots, peeled and grated

- 4 oz tomato paste (But seriously, I never measure anything, so who knows…)

- handful of dried wild mushrooms, rehydrated in hot water for min. 1 hour prior

- seasoning: salt, pepper, lots of paprika, chili pepper, nutmeg, 2-3 bay leaves, dry marjoram, even thyme if lying around

- vegetable oil (I use sunflower).

I start with heating up the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot, then add my pancetta and let the chunks render. When the bits get crispier, I take them out, and toss in the onions and the leeks. I let them sauté for a couple of minutes before I add garlic. Right off the bat, into the mix there goes about a tablespoon of dried marjoram and a touch of salt to help the veg sweat. Now you’re ready to add the sauerkraut, carrots, mushrooms along with the water they soaked in (Watch for any dirt and sand on the bottom of the cup though!), tomato paste and all spices but the black pepper. You’ll finish seasoning your stew with pepper (and more salt if needed) in the very end.

Bring back the pancetta bits and mix all your ingredients together. Cover the pot with a lid, reduce the heat to low, and let cook for 1.5 – 2 hours. Check on the guys every so often and add a touch of water if it gets too dry. Also, you don’t want to burn the stuff. It’s too good to waste! Mark my words.

Rustic simplicity: a bowl of steamy hot, comforting Polish Stew with a slice of bread, or better a few hot potatoes. Bigos (if cooked with minimal amount or no meat) is an excellent accompaniment to pork loin or even a steak. You can dress it with fresh dill or parsley. Cilantro works just as well. Some Poles like it sweeter and add prunes and/or plum preserves. Some like it on a sour side and avoid such nonsense. You’re the artist, it’s your dish. Go ahead, cook and make potfuls of mouthwatering art poached in love and seasoned with fairy dust. Fear not the winter frost any longer!

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