Adventures in Cooking with the La Caja China Roaster
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.
10) Use the La Caja China more often.