Ever have a salty gooey cheesy craving? I woke up one morning about two weeks ago and had one of those cravings, and the first thing that popped into my mind was a melted aged hard cheese. Aged hard cheeses tend to accumulate these flavorful salt crystals and can be excellent in natural or melted form.
The next thought was that I had a package of boneless, skinless chicken thighs in my freezer and broccoli in my fridge. I prefer using dark, fattier chicken meat when cooking dishes with chicken pieces in them. Chicken breasts chunks are boring lumps of threaded protein as far as I’m concerned.
The only thing I was missing was the cheese. A rather important component, and I did not have it readily available.
I set forth on an expedition in search of aged cheese, and in particular aged, or “oude” (old) Gouda, which on Bonaire, as a Dutch island, shouldn’t be too hard to find, right? Well, it wasn’t easy – oh what I’d give for a Whole Foods with a real fromagerie! I had to hit four markets before I found anything other than the ever common young Gouda or shredded mild cheddar. For those who know Bonaire, I went to Warehouse Bonaire, Cash & Carry, and Cultimara. I finally found my aged Gouda at More For Less, a small market tucked away in the local neighborhood of Nikoboko.
I also found some nice Vincent cheese, which is another aged Gouda-style cow’s milk cheese which is not quite as crumbly as a really aged Gouda, but still firm and very flavorful. I purchased a couple of pounds of each cheese, thrilled that I could make my culinary desires for the day come true, especially after the first three markets and their lack of the right cheeses were making my prospects look very dim indeed.
Back home, after thawing out the chicken, I cut it into small pieces and then marinated it for half a day in a blend of white wine (a 2007 Bel Echo Sauvignon Blanc), rosemary, sea salt, white pepper, sage, lots of garlic, and olive oil.
In the evening, Krystyana shredded all the cheese for me, and to add a little more gooeyness, I added a bag of pre-shredded cheddar and Monterey jack blend.
The next trick was making a good cheese sauce. My only prior experience with large amounts of melted cheese has been fondues, so I adapted my fondue knowledge to the task at hand.
In advance I prepared a small cup with lemon juice and another with a bit of water into which I dissolved a few tablespoons of arrowroot flour (although tapioca flour or cornstarch will do as well). The reason for dissolving the starch into cool or cold water is that if you add the starch directly to hot dishes it clumps, and there are few things worse than having an enjoyable meal interrupted by biting into a lump of starch. Ick.
I also had the bottle of Bel Echo wine nearby.
I heated up a can of Campbell’s Cream of Chicken soup (along with the obligatory can of water to thin it out) and a teaspoon of white pepper in a sauce pan to use as my base, and at low heat slowly added the cheese, a clump at a time. Once the clump dissolved, I would add more, occasionally interspersing with a bit of the starch water or acid (lemon juice or white wine) until all my cheese was dissolved.
The acids, in the form of lemon juice and wine, as well as the starch, are needed to prevent the cheese sauce from clumping, although with the amount of cheese involved, a small bit of clumping seemed unavoidable. Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking” has a nice section on cooking with cheese (see pages 64-66), and describes how starches coat the protein patches and fat pockets of the cheese and keep them apart in order to stabilize cheese sauces and molten cheese. The lemon and wine also as a bit of tartness to complement the saltiness and fat of the molten aged cheese.
At the same time as I was making the cheese sauce, Linda was cooking the marinated chicken, which we had first drained in a colander to remove all the marinating liquid. And Krystyana had cut up and lightly steamed the broccoli in the microwave so it was barely cooked and still crisp.
We also preheated the oven to 375°F.
The idea was that all the ingredients would already be mostly cooked before being blended in the casserole dish. The baking of the casserole was intended only to finish the dish off and infuse the broccoli and chicken with some of the richness of the cheese
Once the sauce, broccoli, and chicken were all separately ready, we combined them into two casserole dishes (keep in mind that small portions appear to be something I have yet to master – and anyhow, I have a vacuum sealer and freezer, and I love leftovers), pouring the last bits of the cheese sauce over the top of the mixture.
Both dishes were then covered and put in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. After those 20 minutes we removed the lids and baked for another 15 minutes or so until we had a nice golden brown cheese crust on the surface.
And thus the broccoli cheese chicken casserole was fully cooked. And, I should add, hungrily devoured. The blend of cheeses, the seasoned chicken, and the texture and flavor of the broccoli was excellent, especially with the glass of Sauvignon Blanc still left in the wine bottle.
The gastronomic craving I had awoken with had been fully sated. And I had ample left over to satisfy future salty gooey cheesy cravings.
I am a tough person to buy presents for – at least that’s what my family tells me. They claim that if I want something, I will just go out and buy it. So about a year ago my family decided to surprise me with something they knew I didn’t have nor even knew about to order it for myself: a La Caja China roasting box. Linda and Krystyana saw the La Caja China on Bobby Flay’s Throwdown show on Food Network and thought it was the perfect gift for me. It was a nice coincidence, as I was fortunate enough to have had a great birthday lunch at Flay’s Mesa Grill in New York City a few months prior.
The La Caja China, which comes in three sizes (I have the Model #1 – the smaller of the two larger units – it can hold a 70 pound pig), is a metal roasting box in a wood frame with wheels. You put the charcoal on top of the box, and the heat emanates through the metal lid into the enclosed space below, roasting any meats found there. Incidentally, the name “La Caja China” translates from Spanish into “The Chinese Box”, based apparently on a roasting box that Chinese workers in new world used to cook meals, but the actual design stems from pig roasters of Cuban origin, as I understand it.
Alas, while being on the road for most of last year, I did not have a chance to use the La Caja China beyond one initial experiment with a small pork shoulder (which turned out excellent).
However, we were having a dozen and a half people over a couple of weeks ago for a barbecue, and I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to put the La Caja China to the test with multiple types of meats. So I planned to use a large 20 pound pork shoulder we found here, a 14 pound turkey, a pair of ducks, and 11 three pound chickens. It was a great experiment, but not without some complications, as I relate further below.
The first step after thawing out all the meat (because fresh meat other than goat is pretty much impossible to find on Bonaire) was to brine the pork shoulder and turkey overnight in a blend of brine and a marinade. The marinade brine mixture I used was the Mojo Criollo sauce found on the La Caja China web site. This mixture features sour orange juice, garlic (which I had fortunately prepared just days before), and a blend of other spices. And lots of brine (salt water), of course.
After using a huge syringe and needle to repeatedly inject both the pork shoulder and turkey with the mixture (something Krystyana took great delight in doing – should I be worried?), we submerged both meats in a cooler filled with the marinade/brine mixture and ice cubes to keep it cool overnight.
The next day, in the morning, we used the remaining batch of the marinade/brine mixture to soak the eleven chickens and two ducks (no needles this time).
We had carefully plotted out the projected cooking times based on the directions from the La Caja China web site in order to try and have all the meats ready by about 6:30-7pm.
It should be noted that the directions require something on the order of about 40-45 pounds of charcoal to run through a complete cooking cycle with the La Caja China. Most of the charcoal on Bonaire is charred wood chunks, but over the prior couple of weeks I managed to locate sufficient quantities of briquettes (I bought about 55 lbs.) to meet the project requirements of the roasting box.
You start with about 15 pounds of charcoal in a mound in the middle of the top tray. Not ever having been very good with getting charcoal going, I used copious amounts of charcoal lighter fluid. Because of the design of the La Caja China, any petroleum odors rise away from the box instead of affecting the meats inside, so I welcomed my ability to liberally apply the flammable liquid in as great a quantity as possible.
I started the charcoal at about 2:30pm, and by 3pm had it all nice and gray and hot, and spread it out over the surface of the box after putting the pork shoulder inside the roaster.
At 4pm we (it’s a two person job to move the charcoal laden lid off the box) flipped the pork shoulder and then added the turkey. And then another 8 pounds of charcoal on top. We also inserted an electronic meat thermometer into the pork shoulder, which the directions said should read 179°F before we should remove the pork shoulder. The pork already smelled fantastic and the part facing up had started crisping up nicely, but the temperature was pretty low, below 100°F. But, after that was after only an hour, for a chilled piece of meat. So far, so good!
At 5pm we opened the box again to find the pork nice and crispy except for a small piece of extra crispy (black) skin and the temperature was rising nicely. We covered the pork with aluminum foil to prevent further burning of the skin, then flipped the turkey over, and then added the two ducks and ten chickens. We couldn’t fit the eleventh chicken.
Not a big problem – I just went and popped that last chicken into the oven in the house to slow roast there. We then covered our box of roasting meat with the metal lid and applied another 8 pounds of charcoal. Things were still looking good.
At 6pm we took a quick peek. The turkey was looking pretty good, but the smaller poultry had not browned very much at all, and the pork shoulder was only at about 132°F. Hmm. A 6:30pm or 7pm dinner was looking a bit tenuous at best. We added more charcoal. Around now our first guests arrived as well, so we started plying them with beer and wine, hoping they wouldn’t notice food being served later than expected.
At 7pm we looked again. The little red doohickey on the turkey had popped. It was done. But the pork was only around 145°F – still far off from being done properly. And the smaller poultry? Just barely browning. Obviously something was not going right, and we figured the problem was that we had been letting far too much heat escape each time we added meat or flipped things. But we had to take the turkey out before it overcooked. So we did. I also pulled the chicken out of the oven in the house. It was perfectly cooked.
Then we added another 8 pounds of charcoal in the hopes this would somehow accelerate the cooking inside the roasting box.
When we checked things again past 7:30pm, with people starting to get a bit cranky due to hunger and enticing smells from the roasting box, it was finally time to flip the chickens and ducks, but the pork was only around 150°F. Argh!
We punted and served the turkey and one chicken we had cooked in the oven. Both got rave reviews. Several people commented that they had never had a moister, juicier turkey (and I agree – it was phenomenal). However that meant it was devoured altogether too quickly. Our guests were polite and claimed to be full when I apologized for the delay in having an edible pork shoulder and the other poultry ready for them. More wine was poured, more beer was consumed.
At 9pm things were looking grim. The pork shoulder was finally just a bit north of 163°F, but still a far cry from the target temperature of 179°F. The poultry had not browned yet sufficiently either. I added more charcoal.
I discovered I was almost out of charcoal.
Not good. But the smells from the roasting box were amazingly wonderful, offering just a glimmer of hope of a feeding ahead.
People starting leaving soon after 9pm, and my entreaties to have them stay “just a bit longer” to help us enjoy the pork were insufficient to get them to stay. I don’t think they believed me. I didn’t really believe me either.
By 10pm the last of the charcoal had been used. The pork’s temperature was promising – we were at 172°F – almost there! There were only six guests left. I bribed them to stay with some of the nicest wines from my wine cellar-fridge (a Rusack 2006 Syrah and a Rusack 2006 Pinot Noir), served in my best Riedel stemware instead of the plastic cups we had out earlier due to the larger volume of people present.
At 10:31pm, the meat thermometer related glad tidings. The pork shoulder was finally, amazingly, at temperature. And just in time, as our remaining guests had been making very serious noises about finally getting ready to go. We emptied the La Caja China’s edible delights onto trays and cutting boards, and then brought both ducks, a couple of chickens, and the fabled pork shoulder to the sole populated table in our backyard.
The smells of the meat and skin were overwhelming. People stopped talking, and were salivating instead. And their patience and involuntary bodily response (salivation) was rewarded. The pork meat was moist, hot, and heavenly, and the pork skin even better.
In the words of Jim, one of our guests: “Oh (pause) my holy God!!!”. And the duck was a hit too (although I found some of the meat to be a wee bit dry – the skin was excellent though).
For some time after that, the only sounds heard were lips smacking, groans and moans of culinary euphoria, and “Oh, you have to try this part – it’s even better than that other part”.
Our last six guests stayed until nearly midnight, and we had the best time together, eating, drinking, and being generally convivial (or “gezellig” as the Dutch would say).
As we wound down, we still had an abundance of food left, so we vacuum packed eight chickens and many pounds of pork meat (no skin left to save – it all got eaten), gave a duck to our friend Dan, whose wife was ill and had asked for some duck leftovers. Another of our guests (who, amusingly enough, works at KFC), took home a chicken as well.
We then put most everything that was left in the freezer.
The charcoal got dumped on the gravel in our backyard, but upwind, so in the morning everything downwind was coated in gray dust.
Overall, the evening was quite the learning experience. But we had a great time, and our guests, even those who missed out on the crowning event of roasted pork shoulder, said they did too (I hope they are not just being polite). And the food, oh my. It was heaven.
Here are the lessons I learned (or re-learned) that night:
1) I love my La Caja China, but will do a better job of using it properly next time.
2) Roasting boxes work via heat (duh!). Open them too often or introduce cold things and they don’t work nearly as well. Work with that concept.
3) Buy twice as much charcoal as you think you will need.
4) Budget more time to cook more meat.
5) Patience will be rewarded.
6) Wine can make life good, and really good wine can make it even better.
7) Good food makes people more relaxed and social. Thus it is a good idea to plan social events around good food.
8 ) Brining meats is good! Do this more often for moisture whole birds and pork.
9) Charcoal should be dumped downwind from where you are, not upwind.
About a year and a half ago, we took a private docent-led tour in New York City with Elizabeth Knight as part of a “History of Tea” tour arranged by Context Travel. Context no longer offers this tour, but you can still take custom tea tours and get tea training with Elizabeth via her own company, Tea With Friends. I highly recommend it if you are in New York City and have the time.
You might think that New York is a rather odd place for this, but as it turns out it was a brilliant choice, as it offers a broad range of cultural, historical, and culinary traditions that immigrants and business people have brought to this urban environment. Perhaps the most stunning thing we discovered even with all the diverse types of teas in the world is that they come from one type of plant – Camellia sinensis.
The base types of tea – white, green, oolong, black – are produced by processing the leaves and buds of the tea plant in different ways. There’s a great article on tea processing at Wikipedia.
Be that as it may, one of the things we learned with Elizabeth (and elsewhere) is that most tea-bag tea is made with tea “dust” or “fannings“, which are typically (but not always) lower grade leftover bits of tea leaves. In various tea tastings over the last couple of years we have also found that for certain types of teas, such as green and oolong, the flavor and aroma of brewed whole leaf teas is generally far superior to tea-bag teas. Subsequently we have raised our tea standards, as life is too short to drink mediocre tea.
While there are some great companies that specialize in tea bags with whole leaf teas, including Tea Forte, Mighty Leaf, and some of the teas from Harney & Sons, I generally find it more satisfying and less expensive to buy tins or bags of loose leaf tea and use the tea that way. The other nice thing about brewing your own loose leaf teas is that you can blend your own tea combinations to brew the perfect tea for the occasion.
Speaking of brewing, I have a drawer full of tea strainers, tea balls, and other tea infusion gadgets, but honestly I have not found anything which competes with the Teavana tea maker for properly and easily steeping and brewing tea.
Tea balls and infusers tend to be a pain to fill – leaves tend to fall out and things get messy. And tea strainers tend to be either too tough to clean after use, or have sieve holes which are too large and let tea bits through.
The Teavana tea maker, on the other hand, has a very dense pair of screens at the bottom which both prevents tea bits from getting through as well as getting stuck after brewing. Better yet, the tea maker also acts as a steeper so that you can steep and brew your tea for however long the tea requires and then drain the steeped tea into an appropriate vessel.
Let me diverge with a quick comment on steeping tea. The lighter the tea (e.g. white or green), the more delicate it tends to be, and thus the more care you need to treat it with when brewing. If you over-steep or use water that is too hot, you could burn the leaves and/or make it very bitter, thus ruining your tea experience. There is a nice basic chart to follow here.
For a while I was very anal retentive about measuring the water temperature of my hot water, but then an elderly Japanese lady in an underground market near the Shibuya Station in Tokyo showed me a cool (literally) trick. To get her boiling water cooled off to an appropriate temperature for the green sencha tea she was brewing for the tea samples she was offering, she would pour the boiling water into a room temperature tea cup, swirl it around, and then pour it over the green tea leaves (sencha) in the small teapot she used for brewing. That decanting into a colder container was enough to cool off the water temperature, and also served as a way to warm up the tea cup to avoid “shocking” the tea when it was poured for consumption a couple of minutes later.
So now, when I brew my white or green teas, I pour the boiling water into my cup or pitcher first, swirl it around a bit, and then pour it over my tea leaves to steep them without burning them with water that is too hot. For a 16 oz cup of tea I normally use a bit more than a teaspoon of loose leaf tea, while for a pitcher (almost two quarts) I will use about five (5) teaspoons of loose leaf tea, or even a bit more if I am decanting over ice to make an ice tea.
And my tea leaves are invariably in one of my Teavana tea makers (large to make a pitcher of tea, small to make a big cup of tea) as pictured above.
To heat my water, I have found the best thing is an electric hot water kettle like the one shown above. It’s faster than using a traditional stove top tea kettle, and easier to see exactly how much water you’re heating up. A microwave will do as backup for a cup of hot water, but I don’t have any assurance that I’ve reached boiling temperature in a microwave so I only use one when I don’t have a better way to heat my water (like in a hotel room).
My favorite teas are green teas – I particularly like the grassy nose of a decently brewed sencha, and also have become fond of oolong of late, with a splash of vanilla extract. In terms of blends, I like to steep fresh lemongrass and then add green tea leaves to it to produce my own lemongrass green tea. Oh, and I almost never sweeten my teas, with the exception of a chai-style blend.
I have been finding that more and more supermarkets appear to carry loose leaf teas now, but in a pinch you can probably find dedicated tea shops in a local shopping mall or town. Teavana appears to be the most populous in the U.S., with a very broad selection of teas. If ordering on-line, I have had great success with Teavana, Mighty Leaf, and Harney & Sons. I find the Japanese green teas to be best from Harney & Sons, but like Teavana’s Moroccan Mint and Masala Chai better than the equivalent products from Harney & Sons. Mighty Leaf has an amazing Orchid Oolong as well as the fragrant Celebration blended black tea.
All in all, I think if you have an interest in tea, once you go to loose leaf tea, you’ll find it hard to go back to plain old tea-bag tea. In fact, for my upcoming Antarctic trip, I bagged a bunch of loose leaf teas in my own tea bags because I didn’t want to suffer with normal tea, and couldn’t fit the Teavana tea maker in my limited luggage space. I also packed some low-sugar hot chocolate mix and my own datil and ancho chili pepper blend to make spicy hot chocolate to keep me warm on the inside. But that will have to wait for another blog post.