I thought the discussion of pu-erh tea I had initiated earlier this week had closed, but this afternoon, as I opened my birthday presents I discovered that my very thoughtful daughter had bought me several tea related things while she was exploring China with National Geographic Student Expeditions last month.
In addition to a beautiful porcelain tea set and a mystery loose leaf tea she really liked, Krystyana also gave me a hunk of pu-erh tea that she had found in Yangshao. However, unlike the pu-erh cake I picked up in Hong Kong, the pu-erh from Krystyana’s trip was in the shape of a bowl – round and hollow.
I had never seen pu-erh shaped in this way before.
The aroma of the dried leaves was a touch more earthy that the cake I have, and the flavor of the brewed tea a little stronger than the older leaf pu-erh I purchased in Hong Kong. A very pleasant tea indeed!
This time around, should someone be willing to translate the text on the wrapper, I’ve included a shot of it in its entirety.
As those of you who read this blog regularly know, I live on a small Caribbean island called Bonaire. Bonaire is located about 50 miles north of Venezuela, and is part of the Dutch Kingdom. Those of you not familiar with the island might assume it’s a lush tropical island – in fact, far from it. Bonaire is arid and dry, vaguely reminiscent of the Arizona desert in its general look and feel, vegetation included.
That means that not much grows on Bonaire, at least not that can be exported. Adding to that that Bonaire is a tiny little island (110 square miles or so) with a small population (15,000 people), and no stop lights, there’s not much capacity here for export of much of anything. Except salt, that is.
Cargill, one of the world’s largest privately held companies, owns the southern part of Bonaire, and uses it as a solar salt farm. They have giant man-made ponds, which they fill with sea water, seal off, and then over a period of months, let the sun and warm climate evaporate the water, leaving only minerals behind.
The minerals left behind are primarily salt and gypsum, with the salt left on the top. As the salt concentration increases, the water color in the salt pans changes to a pink/purple, and can be quite vivid in the right light.
As you can see from the above image (one of my digital paintings using only natural colors), the mounds of salt that the salt company harvests look like little white mountains. At the peak of the salt harvesting season these may get to be 60-80 feet tall, I believe.
Bonaire’s salt is sent to the U.S. for processing, and typically used for chemical production, water softening, pool treatment, and sometimes even for deicing.
So why am I writing about industrial salt usage in a foodie blog? Well, I am starting to get more heavily into brining the meats I want to cook and grill, and brining necessarily involves salt. Lots of salt. And on Bonaire, buying salt at a supermarket in the quantities needed for brining can get quite expensive.
This is where Cargill’s solar salt works come in. It’s not widely known, but if you visit their offices here, they will sell you salt in 25kg bags (about 55 pounds), and cheap too – only about NAFl. 10 to 15 per bag (depending on grade). That works out to around $5.60 to $8.40 a bag. Not a bad deal at all. There are four grades available: fine, medium (similar to a Kosher salt in texture), coarse, and large. Large is the more expensive one because it involves a bit more manual sorting, with salt crystals averaging about an inch in width and height. While we have a bag of the large to use in some art projects for our gallery, for culinary purposes we prefer the medium grain.
There is one drawback, of sorts, to buying salt from the salt company here, and that is that they don’t have the equipment necessary to clean the salt so it can be certified to be pure of any biological elements (dead crustaceans, plankton, sea weed, bird droppings, etc.). Hence the “Not Intended for Human Consumption” printed on the bag as seen above.
However, the salt is rinsed and filtered before being put into the large salt mounds, and when bags of salt for local use are made, it’s from salt that’s inside the mounds as opposed to the exterior (which will tend to be a bit dusty). For what it’s worth, the sea salt you get from the salt company is widely used as is in local restaurants and tastes great. That’s good enough for me. After all, we eat fish from the local waters, happily, so why not the salt as well?
So, when I brought home the salt last week, the next question arose – how the heck do you manage a 25kg bag of salt? Especially in a humid and hot environment where it’s likely to get all clumpy?
The solution was to divide and conquer. We cleaned the outside of the bag, open it up, and then started bagging it in vacuum sealer bags – 1kg of salt per bag. The U.S. Post Office digital scale was a great way to ensure our bag weights were spot on (give or take 20 grams or so).
Vacuum sealing removed most of the air and thus most of the moisture, and 1kg bags are much more manageable than a 25kg bag.
The next step will take place in a week or so when my new Cuisinart rotisserie arrives and I start brining buckets of whole chickens.
My first introduction to aged Pu-erh Tea was at The Fat Duck restaurant in England a couple of years ago, when I finished my meal off with a nicely brewed chunk off of a 50-year old Pu-erh tea cake (the tea is usually packaged up in compressed cakes of aged tea leaves). It was heavenly.
I’ve since tried to find pu-erh tea cakes during my travels, but only found pu-erh in loose form, of questionable origin, and usually quite bitter and earthy. I will normally brew that stuff with chrysanthemum blossoms for a more pleasant blend – the blossoms sweeten the tea and overcome the earthiness of the low-grade pu-erh.
However on our recent trip to Hong Kong we found a couple of tea shops offering vintage pu-erh cakes, so I plunked down 800 Hong Kong dollars (just over US$100) for a cake I was told was 17 years old.
As I don’t read Chinese, I don’t know for sure if my pu-erh patty is from 1993, but the first bit of it I brewed was wonderful – it had a full, warm, rich flavor without a hint of must, and better yet, the tea is good for multiple brews (I did four on the small chunk I extracted from the cake), and each was as good as the second. I say that because the tea store owners I bought the pu-erh cake from suggested (mostly with sign language) that you quickly rinse the tea leaves with hot water and discard the water (the first brew), and then you can consume the subsequent brews.
If any of you read Chinese, I would love a translation of the front and the back of the pu-erh packaging shown above. I’m curious if I got a good deal or got taken as a Gweilo.
Update – August 16, 2010: I have just added the photo below to this blog entry per Kay’s offer in the comments on this post to have her sister-in-law translate. I didn’t realize how much text was under the folded wrapper. It does say 2001, so perhaps that’s the year of manufacture? We’ll find out soon!
While we normally don’t eat large quantities of bananas because of the high starch and sugar content, we occasionally make exceptions for finger bananas, so on an impulse last week, when I encountered bunches of them at a local market, I bought one bunch (about 20 bananas). Initially they were still a bit green, but as the week progressed they continued to ripen, and we were just not eating them fast enough.
Faced with the prospect of possibly having to throw them out, I remembered that some years ago I bought a dehydrator with the intent of making beef jerky. Intent and reality never collided, and the device sat in our storage room collecting dust. Until now, as I realized this would be a perfect way to save the bananas from premature extinction.
It was a match made in heaven.
What a dehydrator does is blow warm (or hot) air down over trays of food. The warm air evaporates or dehydrates the moisture from the food, effective drying it out. Very simple process. The particular dehydrator I had was made by Open Country, targeted primarily at folks who hike around a lot and want to carry food with them that weighs less than normal (considering I probably bought this at a outdoor sporting store, it makes sense).
After carefully reading the manual, I sliced up all the bananas, placed them on the dehydrator’s trays, set the dehydrator’s temperature to 135°F (the temperature suggested for fruit) and let the device do its thing for the next 8 hours, after which we had dehydrated banana slices.
The dehydrator, as part of the process of forcing moisture out of food, ends up shrinking the food item being dehydrated, which in turn concentrates the flavor. So, the dehydrated banana slices were sweeter and more flavorful than regular moist bananas.
I felt inspired now, having realized how stupidly easy it was to use the dehydrator. So, next I got some lean roast beef (raw), sliced it in quarter inch thick strips against the grain, and then marinated it for half a day in a mixture of ketjap manis, sambal oelek, garlic, vinegar, and water.
I then dehydrated the beef for eight hours at 155°F (recommended for meat), and voila! Beef jerky! After it cooled, we found the beef jerky to be a bit drier than desired. Next time I think we’ll try for 6 hours and see if that makes it a bit moister. But it tasted great, and there was no question that it was fresh beef jerky.
My next effort was to make low-carb chips using daikon radish and eggplant slices, using the dehydrator to eliminate most of moisture so I could more easily fry the slices in my fryer. That worked moderately well, but the four hours they spent in the dehydrator were again a touch too long. What was interesting was that the daikon radish also got bitter after being flash fried, but was incredibly “radishy” tasting out of the dehydrator.
Yesterday we found fresh strawberries at our local market (not a common occurrence here on Bonaire – we’re usually stuck with frozen berries), as well as fresh blueberries (an even rarer happening), so we sliced up one box of strawberries, put them on the dehydrator trays, and dried them out. Krystyana added a handful of blueberries to one of the trays too.
Again, four hours was too long for the strawberry slices – they were completely dry, but powerfully flavored. I plan to take advantage of that dryness to make a potent and flavorful strawberry powder in my blender. The powder can then be used in cooking, as an additive to yogurt or cream, or anything else a strawberry-loving heart desires.
The blueberries were in for 13 hours, and were still overly moist and kind of bland – no doubt due to the fact the skins have not been punctured to assist the escape moisture. I don’t think we’ll try whole berries again. Cutting them in half might have been better.
The kids devoured the original batch of beef jerky, so last night we worked together to marinate two batches of beef – one in a chipotle, brown sugar, chili powder, garlic, and vinegar marinade, and the other in a lemon grass, cumin, soy, brown sugar, and fish sauce marinade. They went in the dehydrator this morning, and four hours later the thinnest slices were ready, and all the meat was properly dried (not overly so) after six hours. Both were delicious.
The kids are already talking about what flavors of jerky they want to make next. And in the process both have been learning about better knife use as well as selecting appropriate cuts of beef (for jerky it should be quite lean).
The manual for the dehydrator also suggests that you can dehydrate sauces like spaghetti sauce for later hydration, or something like apple sauce in order to make a fruit leather that can be rolled up in wax paper and eaten later as a snack. We might try something like that soon.
If you don’t have a dedicated dehydrator, you may be able to simulate the results using a convection oven which can be run at lower temperatures.
We spent yesterday in Los Angeles as a quick stop along our trip from New Hampshire to Hong Kong. Our friends Todd and Jenna were in town and took us out to dinner at a delightful small Salvadoran/Mexican restaurant called Gloria’s Cafe.
I should mention that Jenna is a huge fan of food truck cuisine – an amazing revolution in quality restaurant food on wheels, akin to the gastro pub revolution which hit England by storm a couple of years back, in that ordinary eating locales have been upgraded with gourmet and foodie offerings. In Los Angeles, the food truck movement appears to be the result of chefs being able to set up a food truck for a mere fraction of what it costs to open an immobile restaurant, and with lower overhead and more flexible hours as well.
So why is the food truck movement relevant to Gloria’s Cafe? It’s because Jenna was trying to find a spot where we could dine at an assorted set of good food trucks (something she tracks via Twitter feeds from the truck chefs), but last night they had scattered with the wind, all over the greater Los Angeles area. Had we been available a week ago, for First Fridays, we could have enjoyed them all on a particular hopping street in Venice Beach, however.
With food truck gastronomic nirvana out of reach, Jenna went to Plan B, and that was Gloria’s Cafe, in the Culver City section of Los Angeles. Gloria’s is in a little strip mall with limited parking, but definitely make the effort to find a parking spot even if you have to walk a bit. You won’t regret it.
Something about Gloria’s looked familiar to Linda, and when we got to the front door she finally figured it out – she and Bas had seen the restaurant featured on Guy Fieri’s Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives (making it the second such restaurant I had been to with Todd – we visited China Bandido in Phoenix, Arizona together in March 2009).
Gloria’s is tiny – seating perhaps three dozen people, and featuring a rustic sort of ambiance and a pleasant homey convivial atmosphere. We arrived at around 7pm, early enough to get seated within minutes. We started with one of the house specialty libations – a pitcher of Sangria, which was very good indeed (Jenna and I polished off a second pitcher over the course of the evening).
One of Gloria’s sons, a wonderfully congenial man, soft spoken yet exuberant about the food served in his mother’s restaurant helped guide us through the menu. We settled on a number of typical Salvadoran items for our appetizer, include green tamales which were almost creamy in texture, chicharron (fried chunks of pork), and papusas.
Papusas, as Gloria’s son passionately explained, started with corn flour – masa – which was specially treated to created round fluffy (and, oh my, were they fluffy!) pancakes. A filling is placed on one pancake and then a second pancake is sealed over the top. The fillings available all included a Salvadoran cheese, and then either pork, beans, or herbs (or nothing extra at all). You then eat the papusa with a pickled cabbage called “curtido” and some non-spicy salsa. We split three different types of papusas amongst us and were very happy. Add the green tamales served with a Salvadoran cream similar to sour cream but cheesier in flavor and we were in masa heaven.
Our main courses all came on huge platters featuring rice and beans, refried beans, and the main course itself. Linda chose the house specialty, Carne Adobada – simmering chunks of pork in a wonderful sauce. Jenna had the garlic shrimp which were swimming in a pungent and heady garlic butter sauce (as were my pork chops), and Todd settled for well marinated steak in the form of Bistek Encebollado.
Mama Gloria came by several times to check on us herself and make sure we were enjoying her food (which, without doubt, we were).
Dessert was another delight – with a nice thick flan offered (reminding me of Quesillo, the local flan we can sometimes get on Bonaire), and an dessert empanada, featuring a sweet milk custard wrapped in a sweet plantain (banana) shell, and sprinkled with sugar. Terrible for our low carb lifestyle, but oh so delicious.
Gloria’s was an excellent plan B, and I am already contemplating ways to arrrange a return visit. And maybe we’ll see actor Brian Doyle-Murray there again – he was there last night, and had to wait for a table for quite a bit longer than we did.
Thank you Mama Gloria! And thank you Jenna & Todd!
One of the benefits of living on a small Dutch island is the rich culinary history of past Dutch possessions that has become part of modern day culture. In particular, the Dutch once controlled large swaths of Indonesia, and people from Indonesia emigrated to Holland and to Dutch Guyana, which, about 50 years ago, became Suriname. And here on Bonaire, the Surinamese have a thriving local community, bringing with them Indonesian cuisine, modified by the availability of local ingredients.
One of our favorite localized Indonesian dishes before we moved more towards a low-carb life style was “Bami”, which are seasoned fried noodles, similar to lo mein, but with a distinctly Indonesian style.
Without further ado, below is my localized recipe for Indonesian-style Bami, in honor of our friend Dara who is visiting with us at the moment, and who also requested this dish for dinner tonight. Special thanks go to Rudolph from Suriname, who pointed me in the right direction for this recipe.
(Ingredient measurement are approximate – experiment to find the right flavor for your taste)
Mie noodles or spaghetti (2 lbs for the size portion I made)
2-3 Tablespoons of vegetable or peanut oil
5-10 cloves of garlic, minced
1 large white onion, finely sliced
4-8 Chicken bouillon cubes (can use vegetable bouillon cubes too) this adds salt to the recipe
1-2 cups of brown sugar
1 cup of Ketsap Manis (a very sweet soy sauce – can use regular soy sauce and increase amount of brown sugar instead)
1 cup of finely chopped Selderie leaf (leaves look a bit like cilantro but taste and odor is very much like celery, since it’s a leafy version of celery – means you can also just use regular celery leaf if that’s all you can find)
(optional) 1 cup of thinly sliced scallions
(optional) Peanut sauce (as used with Satay)
Cook 2lbs of mie or spaghetti al dente, rinse with cold water to stop it from cooking and to remove excess starch. Set aside.
In a wok, add oil, cook the garlic and onion until the onion turns glassy but before the garlic starts to get really brown
After the garlic & onions start cooking, but before they reach the end phase in the above paragraph, add the bouillon cubes, mash them down to help them dissolve in the oil
Add brown sugar, stir
As soon as the resulting mixture starts to bubble brown (means that caramelization is imminent), add the Ketsap Manis, stir
Immediately add the spaghetti, and use two long forks (BBQ forks work well for this) to start stirring/tossing the spaghetti to both heat it up as well as distribute the mixture thoroughly throughout the noodles, which should become evenly colored – a nice brown color.
Continue this mixing/tossing until the noodles are nice and hot and then add the scallions if you want them. Stir some more and then add the selderie leaf.
Remove from heat and serve with optional peanut sauce and grilled oriental style (soy-based marinade or teriyaki) chicken, and perhaps some sambal (spicy pepper relish, also Indonesian).
The James Beard Foundation Award nominees for 2010 have just been announced and feature a number of chefs and restaurants that we have had the good fortune to enjoy in the last couple of years.
Named after one of the best known figures in American culinary history, James Beard, the James Beard Foundation Awards have been described as the Oscars of the food world, focusing exclusively on U.S.-based entrants. Judging for the awards is performed by experts in the fields they are judging – effectively by the peers of those who are under consideration for an award. The judges may not enter in the awards category they are judging, in order to prevent any sort of conflicts of interest.
Among the categories being judged are Outstanding Restauranteur, Outstanding Chef, Outstanding Restaurant, Rising Star Chef of the Year, Best New Restaurant, Outstanding Pastry Chef, Outstanding Wine Service, Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional, Outstanding Service, Best Chef by region in the U.S., and a number of categories covering food journalism in various media (including cookbooks).
The winners will be announce on May 2nd and 3rd in New York.
Of the nominees, we are personally familiar with (and appreciative of) the work of:
– José Andrés, Minibar, Washington – Nominated for Outstanding Chef
– Tom Colicchio, Craft, New York – Also nominated for Outstanding Chef
– Amanda Cook, Cityzen at Mandarin Oriental, Washington, D.C. – Nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef
– Alinea, Chicago – Nominated for Outstanding Service
– Wylie Dufresne, wd-50 – Nominated for Best Chef: New York
– Sean Brock, McCrady’s, Charleston, South Carolina – Nominated for Best Chef: South Carolina
– Linton Hopkins, Restaurant Eugene, Atlanta, Georgia – Nominated for Best Chef: South Carolina
Congratulations to all those who were nominated, and we wish all the nominees the best of luck in the upcoming judging, and hope to enjoy a meal created by or at some of the other nominees in the coming year. Certainly the ones we’ve listed above have created a fantastic foodie experience, which speaks well of those we have yet to try.
When we read last week that The Hump, a Japanese restaurant located at the Santa Monica, California airport had been nailed selling whale meat (from a sei whale) we were shocked and saddened.
We have just returned from three weeks in Antarctic waters, and were privileged to actually see the rare sei whales in the open ocean. To imagine that these graceful, beautiful, and most importantly, endangered animals were being surreptitiously served to some diners at The Hump is quite distressing.
The Hump is now closed, permanently. And that too is distressing – much in the same way that a popular and talented performer becoming a train-wreck through stupidity and bizarre behavior is distressing. I say that because I happened to have had one of the best Japanese meals of my life at The Hump just over two years ago (and no, no whale meat was involved).
We were in Santa Monica after having just returned from a trip to Fiji, and I was taking out my brother David and his family for David’s birthday dinner. He suggest The Hump. At first we thought he was kidding – after all, “The Hump” does not evoke visions of great food – to us it sounded more like a strip joint, and the fact it was at the airport was not encouraging either.
But we humored David, and when we got there we found it to be a small, quirky, Japanese-themed restaurant. Those of us who were more committed to culinary experiences opted for the omakase, a special tasting menu available at most Japanese restaurants where the chef determines each course of what you eat, either on the fly or by having prepared a special menu at an earlier time. “Omakase” is apparently a Japanese phrase that means “it’s up to you”.
David and I had an extra course or two while Linda and Krystyana stopped a bit earlier. And each course was excellent. There was a lobster course, a Wagyu beef course, a sushi course, a crab course, a mollusk course, and several more I cannot remember a couple of years later.
Most memorable to my kids was the grand finale however, which consisted of eight different custom ice creams, including a black truffle ice cream which no one other than I liked. And I liked it very much.
I should add that the service we received was also excellent. And looking around us, we could tell this restaurant was a hidden treasure. At the table next to us was an actress we recognized from the TV show Frasier, for example. For a restaurant with a weird name, in an unusual location, this was quite the place to dine.
With such pleasant memories, I find this reckless behavior by the restaurant stunning. Why did they feel the need to cross the line into meat from an endangered species when they already were so good at what they did? I just don’t get it. Just like I also don’t get the train-wreck stupidity and hubris of famous and talented people like Tiger or Britney. But it happens altogether too often, sadly.
I hope the sei whale that was served at The Hump is in some type of whale heaven now. Rest in peace.
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.