Chef at Home: Daniel Ramirez’s Family Box

Cuban roots run deep in Miami, especially when it comes to lechón. The ultimate labor of love, a roast pig isn’t just something delicious to gather around the table and enjoy, but to make together.  And how you make your chanchito defines who you are and where you come from.  Pig connects generations; it’s the stuff traditions are made of.  Like the best traditional dishes, the recipe for Harry’s Pizzeria chef de cuisine Danny Ramirez’s roast pig can’t be found in a cookbook.  It’s not even written on paper.  His lechón is Abuelito’s, passed down from the master himself and perfected over time.

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“My grandfather (my mom’s dad) would kill me if he knew I put ginger in here,” Danny laughed as he ladled a fresh batch of mojo over a whole pig in the back of Harry’s Pizzeria, selected from Mary’s Ranch in Hialeah earlier that morning and still warm from the kill. Using a paring knife, the chef had made several cuts into the flesh, into which he inserted whole cloves of garlic.  Now the fragrant citrus marinade was seeping in, tenderizing the meat for its 6-hour roast the following day in the box, the ultimate in slow cooking techniques.

Roast pig is an excellent lens through which to illuminate the difference in cuisines across cultures. Esther, one of Harry’s prep cooks, was all smiles sneaking looks our way as she worked on her pizza dough.  She asked where the red chili flakes were for the cochon. Danny laughed, “I’m not Creole, baby!”

December 24th and the 31st are the big pig occasions in the Cuban home, and in Danny’s family, we’re not talking Caja China.  Back in the day, Abuelo had a pit with cinder blocks and spit-roasted over guava wood and charcoal.  His friends would come in shifts, in the morning and then afternoon, watching over it.

“My brother and cousins weren’t really that into it, but I was,” Danny continues. “I was about nine or 10 when I think I first realized this was cool. Let’s just play in the backyard so we can chill with Abuelo’, I’d say. He would get the pigs live, and dress them in the backyard. I remember the whole house would smell like marinating pig. It would sit on a big sheet tray on the dining room table, covered with banana leaves and that was it.”

Abuelo moved to Miami in 1968.  As the family, grew it was harder to tend to this spit set up, which requires a lot of work and attention. About 11 years ago, things changed when the master felt his understudy was ready. “Remember that bed frame?” Abuelo asked. “I’m going to build this for you. I’m gonna build you a box. ”  It was about 5 or 6 years ago when Danny first led a roast, and he nailed it.  “I remember the shoulder just falling away from the bone, it was so tender.”

Before each pig roast there is expectation.  Will it be as good as the last time?  You kind of just have to just dive in, do what you know and what you’ve been taught to get it ready, and enjoy the element of surprise… even make it your own.  And Danny did just that.  After the mojo was applied, the 46 pound pig was set into a large cooler overnight to marinate.

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The chef was up at 6:30 a.m. the next day, firing up the coals and preparing the pig for the roast.  The chef mixed kosher salt and olive oil into a thick paste, which is lathered and massaged onto the pig before it is tied up and put on the grates. Abuelo was there to serve as sous chef, while his grandson Jacob napped on the living room couch inside, resting up for his call of duty later on.  Danny had taken him fishing the weekend before and he was looking forward to hanging out with daddy again and have another boy’s day, this time to learn how to roast a pig and continue the family tradition.  Daughter Lia, the eldest and with the personality to match, was out of town or she would have been first in line up to the task.  For 6 hours, the three generations tended to the box, checking the temperature and adjusting the rig accordingly by raising and lowering the grates over the embers with specially fitted chains. Danny likes to cook it a little longer, slower, and with lower heat.  Abuelo noticed.

After noon, the neighborhood began to roll in and hang out.  Young and old, family and friends, including some genuine chefs, populated picnic tables on the back porch to share stories and enjoy a crisp, sunny Miami afternoon.   There was still work to be done, and now plenty of people to do it.  The spread was epic in its simplicity, with the main event staged on a table of its own next to the box in which it was cooked. The Cypress Room sous chef Mike Beltran offered his skills to break down the beast, partitioning loins, from candy, crunchy skin, and maybe even squirreling away some of the secret tender parts chefs love to hoard.  The ultimate trophies.  There was Danny’s mom’s boiled yucca with onions that had been sautéed in some of the mojo juice, his grandma’s arroz congri or rice mixed with black beans and salt pork for flavor, and yes there was even salad.  Rather there especially was salad, Danny’s contribution and now a special request of his aunt.  “The first time I made the salad, she was like, ‘Oh my god, what did you do to this?” Danny laughs. “Nothing! I just shaved a bunch of vegetables, lemon juice and olive oil. So now it’s always, ‘Are you going to bring salad?!'”

The yard also featured a patch of young banana trees, and with the telltale signs of a flower from some dried outer petals on the ground.  Sure enough, one of the biggest flowers I’d ever seen was ripe for the picking and we got to work on a Filipino delicacy from a cookbook Roel lent me, Memories of Philippine Kitchens.  A spontaneous addition to the meal, and fun activity for the kids.  The Coco Lopez didn’t quite do the coconut milk in the recipe justice, but Danny swore by it with with leftovers.

You may not have the time to invest in a whole pig roast, but the box isn’t necessary for a great Sunday afternoon meal.  Take a page from Danny’s book.

“90 percent of the time we barbecue, it’s churrasco,” he explains. ” I always buy the bigger flank steak, and what they call picana in Brazil.  We make chimmichuri, and my wife Carolyn marinates it with beer and mustard. Her dad showed her how to do it when she was little.  She’s of Colombian and Irish heritage.  We always have sausage… Morcilla. There are roasted veggies.  And of course, a big colorful salad.”

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