Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Pig's Head That Won an Election.

So I'm sitting there happily munching away on the pig I roasted in the Caja China and I was sitting next to my friend Scott, who I work with. Scott had brought his two sons to the party and they were behaving like perfect little gentlemen. His oldest, RL, was sitting next to Scott and asked me about the pig's head. "Can I have the head?" he asked.

A bit puzzled, and more skeptical really, about why a 10 year old would want a pig head I said "Well, if it's OK with your dad" while glancing at Scott.

Scott says, "It's for a school project it's fine."

"OK, RL" I say "You can have it, but what's it for?"

"We have show and tell every Monday about something we did over the weekend and I want to tell the class about this."

"Pretty cool, OK, I'll wrap it up for you."

So after wrapping it up I tell Scott how to clean it before his boy took it to school.

Tuesday at work Scott tracks me down and tells me "You have to hear about the pig skull."

The story goes something like this.

Monday morning RL strolls into his class with something in a big plastic bag. Curious about this the teacher asks "RL, what do you have there?"

RL happily responds "It's a pig skull for show and tell."

"Bring that here." the teacher commands. "I want to see that." So RL walks over to her desk and proudly opens the bag revealing the cleaned skull in all of it's glory. The teacher turns pale white in a bit of horror but understands that this could be a good lesson for the kids. "OK" she says "you can show that."

So, show and tell time comes about and when it's RL's turn he gets in front of the class and tells them about this party he went to with his dad where this guy roasted a whole pig. He tells them about the Caja China and then, after building up the story, tells the class he came home with a souvenir. Then, he opens the bag and lifts out the skull.

Now,  in a fifth grade class the girls screamed, and the boys hooted with glee. They couldn't get enough of it.   The commotion was so great that it caused a teacher from the other fifth grade class across the hall to come and see what all the racket was about. She saw the skull, turned white herself, then asked RL's teacher if he could bring it to show her class across the hall.

Needless to say the reaction from the other class was about the same. RL and his pig skull were the toast of the fifth grade for that Monday.

So that was pretty cool to hear that a kid, who had probably never seen a pig skull before, took an interest in it and was rewarded with the glee of his classmates.

But the story doesn't end there. A few days later Scott comes up to me at work and tells me that RL was running for his class representative to the school council. He had run the year before and lost, but he was trying again. Just before the election Scott asked him how he thought he'd do. Somewhat glumly RL replied "Well, I think I'll get 2 votes, mine and my campaign manager's." Now, c'mon, that's a scream, a fifth grader has a campaign manager for school council elections. That's awesome. But RL went onto explain that since he wasn't one of the "popular" kids he couldn't realistically expect to win the election.

Anyway, as the election approached, of RL's two opponents, one changed schools, and the other, seeing RL's new found popularity from the pig skull, decided to drop out leaving RL to run unopposed. Thus RL won his student council election.

Needless to say I'm tickled. I hope one day that young man can look back on this story and see how an open mind about food can change the world.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Going Whole Hog

Part of what got me started writing this blog was the idea of using the whole animal that gave its life to feed us.  Now, that’s easy for a restaurant to do but when it comes to the home cook, like me, once you get beyond something the size of say a turkey, using a whole animal is pretty much impossible.

A few years ago however, a friend of mine told me about this party a friend of his was at  called “Pigs and Pinot.” Aside from my immediate love of the name, which had two of my favorite things in the world in it, the idea of a party which involved good food and good wine really intrigued me. My friend explained to me that at this party they cooked a whole pig in something called a Caja China or China Box.  As I researched this thing I found that a Caja China is the way folks in Cuba roast whole pigs. Supposedly it gets its name from the Chinese railroad workers who brought it to Cuba in the mid nineteenth centuries and used it for cooking, this may just be a myth, but what I can tell you is using one is as simple as advertised.

All you have to do is load this sheet metal lined box with whatever it is you’re cooking, cover it with the lid and place lit charcoal on top. Replenish the charcoal as needed and when your food is cooked, open the box and serve. Easy peasey.

The more I looked into this China Box, the stronger my urge to throw a party similar to the one I had heard about grew. Thus, earlier this year I finally decided to throw the first ever “Swine and Wine” party. It was to be a celebration of all things porcine and vinified (I'm pretty sure that's not a real word but you know what I mean and hey, its my blog!) I set the date for Saturday, September 24th.

As the date approached I got more serious about my research into the Caja China.  First, where could I get one. I certainly didn’t want to spend $300 to purchase one for what might be a once a year, or even less, affair. Well it turns out that the guys at The Bristol just happened to own one.  Since I’m a regular there they told me it would be no problem to borrow it for my event.  Next, where to find a pig. Well, that seemed like a no brainer. First off, there’s no way I was going to serve some warehouse raised GMO fed pig at my party.  So, my choice was obvious. Talk to Rob at The Butcher and The Larder. Having never really cooked for more than a dozen or so folks I had no idea how big of a pig to get. After some discussion we decided that since I was planning on around 50 guests I’d get a 70 pound pig from Slagel Farms. 

Since I was planning on cooking the pig using a traditional Cuban cooking method, obviously my idea was to go that direction in flavor profile.  After a bit of research I decided on a simple blood orange and garlic marinade.

I picked things up at various times during  the week leading up to the party. Sunday I shopped for numerous supplies, Thursday I picked up the China box from the Bristol, and bought some more ingredients and supplies. All the while I was stressing over this 70 pound pig.  It seemed like a lot for 50 people, but Rob reassured me it was the right amount. What if I screwed up cooking it? Well, everything says that Caja China cooking is almost idiot proof. What if people didn’t show up? From Evite and Facebook responses  it seemed that I’d have right about 50 people coming, and they all seemed excited about it.  OK Calm down.

I realized that I had nowhere to store this pig overnight when I picked it up on Friday. After a brief chat with Rob he told me all I needed to do was to wrap the pig in a tarp, lay it in a bath tub, cover it with several bags of ice and cover it all with another tarp.  For the 14 hours or so it would be in there I’d be fine.  OK Swell, pig cooling plan made.

So after work on Friday I picked up the pig. Rob split the spine for me (more on that to come) and scored the skin. I popped the pig in the back of my car and off I went. 

I picked up 4 large bags of ice and got the pig (all 74 pounds of it) into my bathtub under ice and wrapped in tarps just like Rob told me.

After that I made my marinade. 2 quarts of blood orange juice, a pound of peeled garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons of salt , 2 tablespoons of oregano, a tablespoon each of black pepper and cumin. Blend it all together and refrigerate overnight to let the flavors meld.

One of the cool things about cooking a whole hog in a Caja China is that the cooking time is crazy fast. Like 4-5 hours, as opposed to the 12 plus hours of roasting on a spit or the 24 hours in a smoker.
So at about 11 in the morning, two friends came over to help me get the pig started. 

Step one, salt the entire pig, both inside and out.

Step two, put the pig between the two metal grates so it lays flat and secure the grates together with “s” hooks. Since Rob split the spine this worked out pretty easy, although some brute force was needed.

Step three, inject the marinade into the pig all over, then rub the marinade all over the inside and outside of the pig.

Step four, put the pig into the box, skin side down.

Step five, cover the box and put 16 pounds of lit charcoal on top.

Now this next part is very important. At no time for the next three hours can you open the box. Not even for the slightest peek.  Don’t do it. Just let the box work it’s magic. Every hour just throw another 10 pounds of charcoal on top. That’s all you have to do. That and hang out with a nice glass of wine or a beer. No tending to the fire or watching temperatures like other whole hog cooking methods.   The China box is really a “set it and forget it” way of cooking.

After 3 hours and 36 pounds of charcoal, you can finally open the box.

It looks nicely roasted but the skin needs to get crisp... grab hold of the racks and flip that bad boy over, skin side up.

Also, insert the probe of a thermometer into the ham to measure the internal temp so you know when the pig is done.

Close the box up, add another 10 pounds of charcoal and go back to your wine.  OK I can do that.

Everything I read said it would take another hour to complete the cook, well I guess because the pig was pretty big (74 lbs. Remember?) it took about an hour and 45 minutes.  When we opened the box it looked amazing. Of course because this is a lesser cuts and guts party the ears never even made it to the table. Heck, I don’t think they even made it out of the box.

Anyway, the skin was crispy and sweet, and the meat came out just amazing.
It was so easy and delicious. The marinade added a nice flavor but the pork flavor was what this was all about.  This isn't BBQ so there's no smokey flavor. But if you take it for what it is it's just specatacular.  I had a Cuban friend at the party and he was gleeful. "It's like Christmas" he squealed (pardon the pun) because this style of roasted pig is the traditional Christmas meal for Cuban families.

The party was a real hit but really the pig was only a small part of what made it fun. 

If you've ever wanted to do a pig roast, try the Caja China. It's so easy and fun I can't wait for next year.

Check back soon when I tell the story of how a pig skull helped win an election...