If you know me personally or are simply a reader of this blog you should have come to the conclusion that I love pork in pretty much all forms. Over half of the cooking related posts here either have a pork product as an ingredient or are the primary focus of the dish. The pig is natures miracle beast and I dig it - Pulled Pork, Cured Hams, Charcuterie, Pork Sausage, Pork Ribs, Roast Pork, Pork Chops, Pork Loin, Bacon, oh my! - I love it all.
My absolute favorite is Kalua Pig. The Hawaiian method of cooking a whole pig in an Imu (pit in the ground) and over the years I’ve cooked a dozen or so by this method and if I can dredge up any decent photos I may do a post on that someday. But for this post, we’re talking about a different method.
Last weekend we cooked one of the dinners for an annual club event. We considered an Imu for Kalua Pig, but the location didn’t suit it so I decided to try something new and chose to cook the pig in a La Caja China. If you are unfamiliar with the device it is a metal lined plywood box with a tray on top that holds charcoal. The pigs (or other meats) are roasted inside the box by means of radiated heat from the coals above.
It’s a highly counter intuitive cooking method in that the overwhelming majority of the heat from the coals just rises away from the top of the box however enough is radiated down through the steel tray to get the job done. Apparently the Grandfather (a Cuban immigrant) of the gentleman that owns the company saw a similar device being used by Chinese railroad workers in Cuba and further developed the method and productized it for sale here. American Dream right?
So the process begins with the procurement of a whole hog. For this size group I purchased an animal that was 100lbs on the hoof, which worked out to be about 80lbs after slaughter and would yield roughly 40-50lbs of meat. Plenty for a crowd of 70 wherein a few of the big fella’s will eat ~1lb, most everyone will eat 1/2lb or less and we had about 10 vegetarians in the group (not sure who invited them). I purchased the pig from Joe Alves of Bar None Ranch in Half Moon Bay, CA (650)726-7977. I’ve bought from him before. The service is great and prices are beyond fair. When I arrived to pick up the pig it had already been slaughtered and had been under refrigeration for over 12hrs to ensure it was good and chilled before they handed it off to me for transport. When I told them how I was cooking the pig they butterflied it on the spot in seconds. A process that would have taken me…..well, far longer.
The day before cooking the pig I injected it with a Cuban Mojo sauce (recipe below) in multiple places in the hams, backstraps, loins and between each rib. Then I rubbed the pig both inside and out with the solids from the sauce mixed with salt & pepper and kept it on ice until the next day.
On the day of the cook I removed the pig from the ice and left it out (covered) to bring the pig up to room temperature before commencing the cook.
The La Caja China website has a number of videos and written instructions on the process, and it ships with a set of written instructions and just in case you are a complete dolt and either don’t recall or forgot to bring the instructions, they are printed on the side of the box.
The process begins by locking the pig into the steel frame that comes with the Caja China that supports the pig above the floor of the box, prevents it from curling and allows for easy handling and flipping the pig near the end of the cook.
You then place the pig, in the frame inside the box and as you can see from the photos, we had to remove the trotters in order to get it to fit. Otherwise, the 100lb pig fit perfectly. It’s a good idea to make sure the box is exactly where you want it before doing so, it’s a bit unwieldy to move once loaded and impossible once the fire is lit.
Once the pig is secure in the box you begin the cooking by piling 18lbs of charcoal, split into two piles, on the charcoal tray, light it, wait until the coals ash over and spread them evenly. Once this is done the clock starts on your cook. There is no reason to open the box during this portion of the cook. Doing so only allows heat to escape and will slow the total cooking time. As you can see in the photos, I have a remote temperature transmitter running into the box and into the center of the rear ham to monitor the temperature of the meat. This turned out to be overkill, but when cooking for others I’m always a little extra careful about making sure everything is completely cooked.
Once the cooking had commenced, we added an additional 10lbs of charcoal after an hour and again 10lbs after the third hour. At this point the internal temp of the pig should be around the 180-190 degree range. If not, cook another 30min or so or until that point is reached. If it’s cold out it may take you a bit longer. It was over 90 degrees when we cooked so everything happened on time.
|The party had a pirate theme....hence my silly outfit. Arrrgh mateys!|
|The box's handles come in handy for resting the charcoal tray.|
Now the first actual work of the cook begins. You have to carefully remove the lid and charcoal tray and shake out the excess ash, discard the ash. Notice the heavy welding gloves we are wearing. Get some. That tray is crazy hot. Also notice that we are wearing shorts and sandals…..not recommended. Nobody got burned but if we’d been drinking a little bit more………. The inside of the cavity of the pig is, as you can see below quite roasted and awesome looking.
Once the pig is flipped, you’ll notice that the skin is still pale and decidedly not awesome looking. Don’t worry, it will be. Using a very sharp knife score the skin in an “X” or grid pattern between each gap in the wire frame. This allows the fat to render out from beneath the skin essentially deep frying the skin in the pigs own fat. Read that last sentence again and if you aren’t hungry, you aren’t human…..
We then placed the lid and charcoal tray back on top of the box and add another 8lbs of charcoal. The meat is cooked at this point and we are simply crisping up the skin for the aesthetics and because crispy fried pig skin is absolutely delicious! During this portion of the cook you’ll want to lift the lid a bit every 10min or so to check the progress. You are looking for a uniformly mahogany colored, crisp skin. If one end is done and the other isn’t you can lift the lid, turn it 90 degrees and place it over the end that isn’t quite there. We had to do this with the head end of the pig. As you can see below, the head itself didn’t get quite dark enough, but the hams were done and I didn’t want to overdo it.
All that’s left to do now is to remove the pig from the box (again, heavy gloves) and remove the top portion of the wire frame.
Breaking down the pig for serving is very simple. Using a sharp knife remove the hams, rib sections, loins and backstraps and cut into ~8oz servings. I tried to have meat with a bit of skin in every serving but kept a bit of the meat aside with no skin for the people that might be creeped out by eating crispy pig skin. Take note of who those people are and consider removing them from future invitation lists.
We served the roast pig with a “New Orleans Style” Red Beans & Rice and Kathy made an awesome slaw to go with it. Our friends Patty & Mike contributed a citrus/ginger side sauce as well that a bunch of people really liked too.
From the lighting of the first match to the time we began serving was just under 6hrs which is bloody incredible. An Imu cook can take 12-24 hours and before that you have to dig the pit! The end result from the La Caja China was absolutely awesome! It was absurdly tender, rich, uniformly moist, not too fatty, slightly sweet with a bit of the caramelized crisp skin and just a hint of acidic tang from the mojo sauce. Honestly, it’s one of the best pork meals I’ve ever had and though I still dearly love the process, ceremony and result of my Kalua Pig this is MUUUUUCH easier and just as tasty but in a different way.
There wasn't much left except for a few scraps that I brought home for the dogs.
If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section.
Cuban Mojo Sauce
1.5c Freshly Squeezed Orange Juice1.5c Freshly Squeezed Lime Juice1.5c Freshly Squeezed Meyer Lemon Juice1/2c Olive Oil1 Whole Onion (chopped as finely as possible, think food processor + 1 ½” chunk)50 Cloves Garlic (chopped as finely as possible, think food processor)4Tbsp Dry Oregano3tsp Salt3tsp Pepper3tsp Ground Cumin
Heat the oil, add garlic & onion and cook on a low flame until that single ½” chunk of onion is softened, then remove it. Add juices and spices and simmer for 30min. Put the sauce in a container and chill for at least 24hrs before use.
When you are ready to inject your pig strain the sauce and keep the moist solids. If you don’t strain it the solids will clog the injector. Once all the sauce is injected, mix another 3tsp ea of salt & pepper with the solids and use that to rub the cavity and outside of the pig.