It began with a telephone call from my sister: “You know what Mike wants for his graduation?” I could honestly say that I did not, and told her so. “He wants to roast a whole pig!”
It was an idea we had played with before, with various degrees of facetiousness and seriousness. This time, though, I figured he meant it. “Put him on the phone,” I said.
“In the ground?” I asked.
“Absolutely. In our back yard.”
“OK,” I replied. “If we’re ever going to do it, I guess this is the time.”
Over the course of the next week we worked through the practicalities, logistics and costs. We would have to dig the pit, line it with big river rocks, banana leaves and burlap sacks beneath Miss Piggy. On top of her we would have to repeat the banana leaves and burlap before closing the pit with sheet metal topped with dirt. When we started adding up the cost – in dollars as well as back pain – it began to seem prohibitive.
“Or, I said, “we could get a roasting box.” I’d read about these things: wooden boxes lined on the inside with metal, the top closed with an ash pan and charcoal grid. The charcoal rests on the top of this roasting box, above the charcoal grid. This method allows the meat to become moist and tender within 4 hours – instead of the minimum 8 for the pit – because of the oven-like effect of the enclosed cooking area.
And one significant bonus is the simple, undeniable fact that where the pit would be a one-off affair (and expenditure), for slightly more money (purchase and shipping) we would have the roasting box available for repeat duty. The most famous brand name in the roasting box game is “La Caja China” (a reference to the fact that the design was used by Chinese workers in Cuba). A less expensive, but essentially identical, unit is called “Caja Asadora” and is available at www.shoplatintouch.com. One telephone call later and Miss Piggy’s fate was decided.
Roasted Whole Pig with Mojo Criollo
- 1 whole pig (about 50 pounds), butterflied
For the Mojo Criollo:
- Juice of 20 oranges
- Juice of 60 limes (assuming average juiciness)
- 1 ¼ cups extra virgin olive oil
- 50 garlic cloves, crushed
- 2/3 cup dried oregano
- 2/3 cup cumin
- 2 cups cilantro
- ¼ cup kosher salt
- ¼ cup freshly ground black pepper
For the Spice Rub
- ½ cup ground cumin
- ½ cup black pepper
- ½ cup adobo seasoning
- ¼ cup kosher salt
- ½ cup garlic powder
- ½ cup onion powder
- ½ cup red pepper flakes
- 1 Cajun Microwave-style roasting box (La Caja China or Caja Asadora)
- 32 pounds charcoal (not instant)
1. Make the Mojo Criollo. Combine the Mojo Criollo ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process to a consistency reminiscent of a wet pesto. Refrigerate the resulting marinade for at least one hour. Strain the marinade well, reserving the solids. Inject it into the pig, 5-6 shots from the syringe into each rear leg and 4-5 shots into each shoulder. This is best done the night before it is to be cooked.
2. Rub the Pig. Combine all of the Spice Rub ingredients in a large bowl and mix well. Rub the pig by hand all over with the spice rub. This too is best done the night before it is to be cooked.
3. Prepare the Roasting Box. Place the grease tray inside the roasting box. Place the room temperature pig in between the grids, on its back, pour the solids from the mojo criollo in the cavity, and place the pig in the grease tray. Close the roasting box with the ash pan and charcoal grid. Allow 4 inches of separation between the pig and the ash pan.
4. Prepare the Charcoal. Starting with 16 pounds of charcoal in two 8 pound piles on each end of the charcoal tray and light using lighter fluid or, better yet, a wax-based starter. When the charcoal has been lit for 15 minutes, distribute it evenly and throughout the tray.
5. Roast the Pig. Roast the pig for 3 hours. Keep the roasting box closed at all times (except for opening to turn the pig as in step 6). After 2 hours, add 7-8 pounds of charcoal over the top of the existing coals.
6. Crisp the Skin. After the pig has roasted for three hours, turn it over and score the skin every 4-6 inches. Meanwhile, dump the ashes from the ash pan. Return the ash can and and charcoal tray to the roasting box with new charcoal and continue roasting. Check the skin after about 20 minutes, by opening the box at one of the corners. Repeat until the skin is crisp.
7. Serve. Present the pig for serving while watching for the intriguing reactions of those around you.