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.”

When Perfect Pigs Fly

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Miami has more to it than meets the eye, literally. For every square foot of sandy beach, there are square miles of sprawling neighborhoods. For every block of Ocean Drive there are wide flat avenues that run west, away from the sparkle of Brickell towards home. Sure Brickell and South Beach are home to many, but if you are still having trouble finding heart in Miami, it’s because you haven’t headed far enough west. Don’t get me wrong, somewhere between the Deuce and The Room the east side has heart, but out west, there is a culture of family, fueled by Cuban coffee, living the true American Dream, and it’s pork-flavored. So I followed my nose to Medley last week, and to the smell of a pork belly cold smoking in a La Caja China, I learned the story of the Guerra’s.

It started in 1984, “I was in charge of roasting the whole pig that year for the family,” says Roberto Guerra, CEO of La Caja China, “and every year it was a pain. You had to get cement blocks, the grill would disappear from the last year. I was complaining, you know, telling my dad what a mission this was every year, and he said he had seen something in Havana, in Chinatown, that would work. You know the Chinese built the railroads in Cuba.” Just like they did in America. “It was just a wood box with a tin cover, so we started doing prototypes for times and amount of charcoal.”

La Caja China opened as a company in Medley in 1987, named for the people who inspired it. “I got angry I said ‘Cuban bread is from Miami, Cuban coffee is Italian, I’m going to give credit where it’s due! It was a joke!’” At the time Roberto wasn’t serious about the company, “in my mind it was a hobby to keep my dad busy.” But simple products only need to function to grow, and he’ll be the first to tell you what a simple product it is. So much so that they guarantee your first pig will be perfect.

“Imagine, you’re having 20 people over. You’ve never cooked anything bigger than a turkey. You’re colleagues are coming. You’re sweating. It’s so simple, you add charcoal every hour and the ashes lower the temperature. Lower temp makes better pork. When you reach 187 degrees you open the box, score the skin, and flip it over. Then crisp it to your likings. Your guests will be talking about it for weeks. They leave as ambassadors of the box.”

He’s right. To see it in action and to taste the pig is to become a fan. Which is why in 2002 when Douglas Rodriguez, godfather of Latin cuisine, requested two boxes for a dinner at the CIA in Napa, La Caja China found an ambassador in Bobby Flay. Two years later, Bobby told his friend Sam Sifton, then dining editor of the New York Times, how much he loved it. Soon after an article about this family owned and operated company out of Medley, Florida ended up on the front page of the Food section on the Times.

“Back then we were getting about 70 hits a day on our website, that week we got 46,000.” Now, sales are predominately out of the snow belt in what Roberto aptly calls Gringolandia, apart from two weeks in December when the Latin’s come knocking. The boxes are also distributed in Europe, mostly sold to Germany, Lithuania, and Slovenia. “I don’t know how it happened, maybe a little marketing help from upstairs,” Roberto said. His dad still comes in the shop every day, and his son Avian is the General Manager.

“It’s just a box,” Roberto says again and again. And we love nothing more than keeping it simple here in Genuineland, which is why when founder Brady Lowe asked Bradley Herron to participate in this year’s Cochon 555, we only had to follow our noses to The Cypress Room, where sous chef Michael Beltran is part of that western-bred pork-roasting family. And so out of a high school friendship, we are the first outside of the company to use the next generation La Caja China today, a box big enough to fit our 226 pound homegrown pig!

“I always consider them like Cuban cousins,” Michael says of the Guerra’s, and with good reason, his family was cut from a similar cloth. A piece of denim to be exact, with which Michael’s grandmother started a jean business that grew to be three factories in Miami and the Dominican Republic, and why he was inclined to start his own t-shirt company. P.I.G Inc Apparel was born out of a late night after the kitchen was closed, with the idea of combining design with food and creating something fun for cooks and people who love to eat. “I was the class clown,” he said, “I had an eighth grade teacher who told me I ‘d graduate high school when pigs fly, so I thought it would be cool to use the Banksy piece of a floating cow, but make pigs fly.”

Win or lose, we celebrate heritage hogs today, repping the side of Miami that loves them most. Clad in “Notorious P.I.G.” we present to the chicharron-loving, bourbon-slugging COCHON 555 judges, guests, and friends, a La Caja China Berkshire hog, passed from High on the Hog Farms in Clermont to Dale Volkert at Lake Meadow Naturals, then one Genuineland chef to the next from the graveyard shift to dawn, pulled apart and served in each of these forms.

Head, Neck & Heart
caper, anchovy, boiled egg

Loin
tonnato, kumquat, fennel, arugula

Belly
clam ceviche, crispy lentils

Legs & Shoulders
fermented rice pancake, kale kimchi, herbs

Blood & Liver & Skin
chocolate, peanuts, strawberry