“The Cajun Microwave” (or… How to Cook a 100 Pound Pig in 4 Hours)

I met a gentleman by the name of Roberto Guerra today.  He stopped by campus to take a tour and was introduced to me.  If anyone knows anything about authentic Cuban food or cooking styles, you will know Roberto.  A very nice, unassuming man, you could tell he walked with a certain pride.  Rightfully so.  This man (or more specifically his father) created what we know today as “La Caja China”.  This is an above ground roaster capable of roasting a 100 pound pig (or something like 16 chickens, 6 turkeys, whole goats, whole lambs, bushels of vegetables, schools of fish, herds of elephants (well, maybe not…).  You get the idea.  

4 hours.  No wonder why it’s affectionately known as the “Cajun microwave”.  It’s fueled by whatever combustible you can think of, typically charcoal or wood.  The box is made from wood and lined with aluminum.  The food is placed between 2 grills and lowered into the box.  The lid is placed on top and the wood is laid on top of the lid.  It’s lit and allowed to cook, radiating heat from the top down.  What’s so cool about this?  You can then grill whatever on the top.  

Now, I am really into some of the more modern, progressive cooking techniques that are out there.  This, however falls into more of the primitive category of cooking methods.  In general, while modern cooking styles require a great understanding of food science, it really is simple in the actual execution.  Primitive cooking requires working with live, unpredictable heating sources, often times outside environments, and unpredictable weather.  You really have to be on top of your game to come out with great results and feel primitive cooking like this requires much respect.

What’s also cool about this cooking style is that it’s got history.  Taken directly from Roberto’s website:

“Legend has it that Chinese workers brought this method of cooking with them when they came to Cuba to work on the railroads in the 1850’s, thus the name ‘Caja China’ which means Chinese Box. Others claim that similar boxes are used throughout the Caribbean for roasting but no one knows for sure why they are called Chinese. The origin of the name may remain a mystery. But the facts are undeniably mouth-watering. The Guerra family brought the secret of making these extra-ordinary roasting boxes from Cuba to Miami.”

Nice.  And these boxes have been picking up in popularity.  What’s more, they are perfect for our farm dinners we will me starting later this year.  Roberto is working on a pro series roasting box for The Institute that we will be able to use.  On top of that, being that his largest current model only holds up to 100 pounds, he is going to be making a larger prototype box that should be able to fit a 200 pound pig in for us that we will be using at perhaps our premier farm dinner.  Double nice.  Although I don’t know Roberto THAT well yet, I’m quickly becoming a big fan.  Check him out here.

THE Way to Grow Vegetables for Your Restaurant or Home

I recently stumbled across an idea that many people have been exploring for a long time.  It’s called Straw Bale Gardening.  It’s got a huge advantage to conventional gardening.  It’s essentially a form of container gardening, but it’s very low cost and extremely  flexible in it’s set-up.  The bales sit up high on top of the ground and you don’t have to deal with turning soil, bending so far over, rocks, poor soil, or getting as dirty.  The only disadvantage that I can see so far is they initially take a lot of water to get them cooking.  After that, an easy drip system will minimize water loss.  Perfect for urban farming, even directly on concrete.  Make sure you don’t mind a little discoloration on the concrete if you do.

What’s happening is that the bales of straw (not hay), after conditioning, start to slowly decompose releasing nitrogen into your plants. Conditioning is easy.  Simply soak the bales in water twice a day for about 10 days.  Add about 3 cups of organic, nitrogen rich fertilizer to the tops of the bales at the beginning of this process so the nutrients can soak down into the bales.  Be sure the ties that are keeping the bales together are running horizontally so that no part touches the ground otherwise they could rot and your bales would fall apart. 

Sometime during this 10 days, the bale will start to get very warm in the middle.  This is the start of the chemical break down otherwise known as the conditioning.  If it does not heat up, it won’t grow your garden.  The heating up will subside after about a week.  After that, you simply lay out some compost on top of your bales and plant your seeds or transplant your starts.  Just water and fertilize as normal and get ready to enjoy some great produce.  The details can be found here.

This is am extremely simplified version of the conditioning phase.  There are many examples out there of watering/feeding schedules to follow and how to achieve the “best” results.   Check them out.   A vast majority of people using this method report much fewer weeds, pests, diseases, and fewer general problems than planting directly in the ground.  Bales will last 2 seasons.  After that, spread them out over the ground to have some great compost to start some new bales.   I will be planting potatoes, peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, beets, broccoli, and a few herbs.  I can’t wait to give it a try.  Why not you?

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