T’is the football playoff season here in the States, and as such, the occasion calls for appropriate eats. It’s traditional to cook stuff that’ll feed a bunch of folks, and that’ll fill them up right as well. In many parts of Mexico, there’s such a dish, and it might even be made for a football match, although they mean what most of the world means when they say football, (and that’s soccer, of course). Doesn’t matter which game you’re glued to, ’cause Carne Polaca is guaranteed to please. Here’s the scoop on a very popular dish south of the border that you’ve likely never heard of – Carne Polaca – a Polish swing on Mexican.
How did a polish influenced dish make it to Mexico? The answer is broader than that, because versions of this dish reside all through South and Central America, as well as Mexico. That shouldn’t be a surprise, frankly. At something over 22 million souls, the Polish diaspora is one of the largest in the world, and that very much includes points south of the border. Most of this emigration occurred because of long term and repeated persecution by more powerful neighbors, though it has continued into the 21st Century, when Poland’s inclusion in the E.U. lead to a large scale migration of young folk headed elsewhere for work. Poles arrived en mass in Mexico during the mid 19th century, and again post WWII, settling mostly in the states of Chihuahua, in central northern Mexico, and Nuevo León in the northeast. The mid 19th century bunch also settled in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Naturally, they brought their cooking with them, but believe me when I tell you that they also loved what they found to work with in their new homes.
Many assume ‘Polish food,’ to be a backhanded homage, as if it were describing something inordinately simple or dull – Neither could be farther from the truth. Because the country often changed hands over the millennia, Polish cuisine is incredibly diverse. Influences run from neighbors like Czech, German, Austrian, Hungarian, Slovak, and Ukrainian, to more widespread roots in French, Turkey, and Italy. There is, internally, rich variety among the regions of the country, and the influences there naturally dovetail with their respective neighbors and traditions. Bagels originated in Poland, as did donuts, as did Kolacz, AKA kolaches. Polish food has always been centered on meats, from a wide variety of game, to beef, pork, poultry, and fish. Side dishes are hearty, focused on local crops and traditional favorites. Spice is everywhere, and used liberally – Paprika and other chiles, dill, cloves, garlic, marjoram, caraway, beetroot, and pepper all get liberal use. Sauerkraut is widely popular, as are a cornucopia of traditional sausages and cheeses. Kielbasa, golabki (stuffed cabbage rolls), and pierogis have all made their way across the globe from their homeland. So, a dish called Polish meat in Mexico isn’t so farfetched after all.
Recipes in English for carne Polaca are few and far between – In fact, I found exactly one, (sort of), so I stuck with the ones in Spanish. While quite a few recipes I checked out did indeed come from the northern border states where Mexican Poles are more concentrated, there were versions from as far afield as Tabasco on the Yucatán peninsula, to Colima on the Pacific coast. Carne Polaca is hugely popular as a party and family gathering dish, and there is significant uniformity as to ingredients and the process of making it. That said, what you won’t find, or at least I couldn’t find, was much of anything about the roots or history of this dish, as popular as it may be. As such, I shifted my sleuthing to traditional polish food, and found what I believe to be the answer – Bigos – Polish Hunters Stew.
Bigos is huge in Poland, a national dish and a tradition pretty much everywhere. It is an ancient dish, full of all things prized by hunter-gatherer societies. Like Burgoo here in the states, almost every polish cook has a version, (and theirs is best, just ask ’em). In essence, Bigos is a meat stew featuring cabbage as a main ingredient, heavily sauced and spiced, just as is carne Polaca. What goes into Bigos is what’s available. It’s often touted as a great thing to make when you need to clear out your freezer, smokehouse, or pantry. As such, there really isn’t a standard recipe, although there are some commonalities. The cabbage used may be fresh or fermented, (sauerkraut). Onions are common, sautéed until lightly browned. Spices include salt, pepper, juniper, and bay. Cloves, garlic, mustard seed, nutmeg, paprika and thyme are also mentioned quite often. This is particularly of interest given that almost every Mexican carne Polaca recipe includes quite a bit of ketchup, and many of those latter ingredients are common therein. There is often a sweet note to Bigos, as well, and that is also most definitely present in ketchup. All things considered, it’s a solid bet that Bigos is the root of carne Polaca, and that’s good news for us.
So here is our swing at a very tasty dish, indeed. You can do this with any protein you like, served over chips as a kind of dip, or with fresh tortillas taco style. It gets better the next day, so lends itself well to making burritos or chimis. What we came up with uses no ketchup, and that’s much for the better, truth be told. The tomato element we provide has the spice notes of good ketchup, with less sugar, and other stuff you may not want, and is truer to the roots of the dish.
Carne Polaca de UrbanMonique
2 Pounds Chicken Thighs
2 12-14 Ounce cans Whole Peeled Tomatoes
16-24 Ounces Chicken Stock
1 small Onion
1 head Green Cabbage
1 bunch Cilantro
1/4 Cup Avocado Oil
2 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon yellow Mustard
2 cloves Garlic
2-5 Chipotle Chiles
1 small Lemon
2 whole Cloves
1/2 teaspoon Allspice
1/2 teaspoon Celery Salt
2 California Bay Leaves
Ground Black Pepper
If you’re using dried chipotles, reconstitute them in a small bowl of warm water. If you’re using canned or crushed, you’re good to go.
Peel and trim garlic.
Preheat oven to 250° F.
Add chicken thighs to hot oil, season with sea salt and pepper, and braise them, about 2 minutes per side.
Add chicken stock to the Dutch oven, to almost cover the chicken. Add bay leaves, garlic, and cloves, allow the stock to simmer.
When you’ve reached a low simmer, cover the Dutch oven and slide it into a middle rack in the oven.
Zest lemon and cut in half.
Open tomatoes and carefully pour the liquid into a small mixing bowl. Pour the tomatoes into an oven-proof dish, (not too large, you want the liquid concentrated.)
To the bowl of tomato juices, squeeze half the lemon, then add a tablespoon of oil, the vinegar, agave nectar, mustard, allspice, and celery salt. Whisk with a fork to incorporate.
Add the blended liquid to the tomatoes, and slide them into the middle rack beside the chicken.
Allow chicken and tomatoes to stew for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the chicken is fork tender. Remove from oven and allow to cool enough to handle.
Hand shred chicken and set aside. Reserve the jus and freeze for future projects.
Add chipotles and juice from remaining half lemon to the tomato blend and process with a stick or regular blender to a smooth consistency.
Peel, trim and rough chop onion, cabbage, and cilantro.
In the Dutch oven over medium high heat, add two Tablespoons oil and allow to heat through.
Add cabbage, onion, cilantro, and lemon zest to the Dutch oven. Sauté for 2-3 minutes, until onions are lightly browned.
Add chicken to the Dutch oven and stir to incorporate.
Add tomato blend and stir to incorporate.
Allow the mix to cook on a low simmer for about 10 minutes.
Serve over warm tortillas, taco style, or with tortilla chips, or whatever way floats your boat.
We’re here to tell you that this stuff is bloody amazing, and even better the next day – We went with taco salads on day two.