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February 19, 2008

The Weary Epicurean—February 19, 2008

If you take the Cicero Avenue exit off I-55 and turn left onto Archer Avenue, there’s an outstanding Polish grocery store and deli called Bobak’s Sausage Company. From the outside, it looks like any other plain old grocery store, but inside, it’s like stepping into suburban Krakow. Seriously, if there are 7-Elevens in Poland, I bet they look like this.

I found out about the place initially because I needed a large quantity of kielbasa. This is not the same thing as “Polish sausage.” (By the way, I have no idea why “Polish sausage” is called “Polish sausage.” If anyone out there in readerland does, I would appreciate being told. However, I do know of a delicious sausage, for which Polish cuisine is very well known. This sausage is called kielbasa. That’s what I was looking for.)

I certainly went to the right store for it. There are hundreds of grades available for purchase at the absurdly long deli counter, not to mention several store brands tightly sheathed in plastic and piled high in refrigerated bins. And the smoked bacon—oh, the smoked bacon. I needed a pound of boczek mysliwski (hunter’s bacon) for a bigos (stew) I was planning, and I was spoiled for choice. Incidentally, the variety I ended up deciding on cost $2.49 a pound, and the kielbasa was only $1.49 a pound—that’s some very cheap pork.

The next spot I hit up was their little bread island, a giant rack piled high with bitter, heavy loaves that whole families could live on for weeks. I bought an excellent Lithuanian seeded rye—I had no idea what was Lithuanian about it, go figure—and a wonderful Russian black bread which was about 11 inches long, three inches tall, and four inches wide, and must have weighed three pounds; perfect for eating with little fishies. I dallied with the idea of buying a challah loaf, but they called it an “egg twist bread” on the packaging, which for some reason made me very nervous.

And then it was time for my favorite part of any Polish food shop: the delicacies, the niceties, the little packages, and the teensy cans. There were herrings in sour cream, Riga sprats in little gold cans with Cyrillic writing on them, four types of pickles, giant tubs of sauerkraut and coleslaw, dried wild mushrooms, little sachets of traditional Polish stew seasonings, two-foot-deep piles of smoked ham hocks (my father calls these “eisbein,” though I think that’s probably German), and on and on. If your taste in snacks strays to the salty and sour, as mine does, then welcome to paradise.

They also keep up a nice hot lunch bar. Everything had Americanized names, with which I was not always familiar—I’ve never heard kasha varnishkas called “barley meal with bow-tie noodles and chicken fat” before, though I suppose that is what it is. The potato pancakes, in particular, were good, as was the blood barley (don’t ask if you don’t already know), and the little stuffed cabbages. In the interest of factual accuracy, I should mention that my friend Alex, who was along for the trip, found the chicken “too moist,” though for the life of me I had no idea what he could possibly mean.

When I got home, I made my bigos, which is an absolutely perfect thing to eat in the current hellish climactic conditions. Now, bigos is a bit of a controversial dish, in that everyone has his own recipe and most people are quite sure that theirs is the correct one. I am under no such illusion; I am quite aware that my recipe is wrong. All I can plead in its defense is that it is delicious, and that I got it from my mother—which lends it some authenticity, I think, in these fast times.

I always start by cubing 1/2 pound of boczek—that thick-sliced smoked bacon I mentioned before—and slicing a whole large kielbasa into little 1/4 inch–thick disks. Put all this pork in the bottom of a stockpot over medium heat, so that the fat starts to render. While the fat is rendering, chop up four large carrots, three large white onions, and six or so stalks of celery into 1/4-inch dices. Once there’s maybe a 1/4-cup of fat sloshing around in your stockpot, remove the solid pork with tongs and add the vegetables to the fat. Cook them for a few minutes. Then re-add the pork, about 2 and 1/2 pounds of drained sauerkraut, a large can of tomatoes, one bay leaf, a bottle of beer (preferably zwiec or Pilsen-style lager beer) and a gallon of boiling water.

Additionally, I always, always add 10 or 15 cloves, 1/4 cup of granulated sugar, dried wild mushrooms, and the little flavor sachets you can get at the Polish grocery. Boil all this slowly, stirring as often as you can stand it, for a minimum of six hours—maximum, well, a week, maybe? Quite a while, anyway. Serve the stew with a ladle, but eat it with a fork, and you must have rye bread on the side. Sour pickles go nicely with it, as does cold weather.