Steve Dolinsky’s annual pig roast is a back-alley affair with celeb chefs and a potluck support system that draws hundreds
By Lisa Skolnik Photos by Katrina Wittkamp
May 3, 2009
As a food reporter for WLS-Ch. 7, Steve Dolinsky is always looking for the next big thing. As it turns out, he may have dreamed it up himself, with his now-annual Pig & Pinot Party, an old-fashioned pig roast with new-age twists. He hosts the to-do at his Bucktown home with fellow foodie Rick Cooper, a music promoter and partner in the Chicago eatery Avec, the weekend before Labor Day to mark his Aug. 25 birthday and the end of summer.
Absent are the Goliath-size grills one would expect to see at a barbecue where the main course is a few 60- to 90-pound porkers. And gone is the 8- to 10-hour wait it usually takes to fully roast them.
Instead, Dolinsky and Cooper use La Caja China roasting boxes, plywood cookers lined with marine-grade aluminum, topped with coal-holding steel grills and fitted with handles and wheels like a garden cart. They can cook those meaty babies in four hours flat.
Despite the name, the device was invented in Cuba. It’s similar to other fast-roasting gadgets developed in the Caribbean and Louisiana, and it’s economical: A small one holds a pig weighing up to 70 pounds and costs $320, and a large one can handle a 100-pounder and costs $350 (lacajachina.com).
Also absent is any semblance of a traditional backyard to give the to-do that iconic alfresco ambience. Dolinsky lives in a contemporary house on a narrow city lot. He has no backyard, but there is a back porch and spacious roof deck on an alley-side two-car garage.
Their lot limitations inspired Dolinsky and his wife, Amy Dordek Dolinsky, to get creative when they held their first Pig & Pinot in August 2006.
“We commandeered the alley for the afternoon,” explains Dordek Dolinsky. To get the go-ahead from neighbors, she went door to door or sent out a letter explaining their plans, which involved closing off most of the alley all day to accommodate the cookers, a few dozen tables and folding chairs, serving tables and a crowd of hundreds. “Fortunately, no one objected,” she says. The two men dreamed up the to-do the first time they met, in May 2006, while seated together at the West Town Tavern’s annual charity benefit. At the time, Dolinsky told Cooper he wanted to do something special to mark his birthday and was thinking about a pig roast. But he planned to hire out the roasting process.
Cooper objected: “I told him, ‘You’re the “Hungry Hound.” You’ve won all these James Beard awards. People will expect you to do it yourself. And it’s not that hard.’ Then I told him about the La Caja China cookers and offered to help him,” recalls Cooper, who already had his own roaster and knew how to use it. West Town Tavern’s owner/chef Susan Goss stoked the idea when “she promised to create a jerk marinade just for the occasion,” recalls Cooper.
It took Dolinsky just a day to decide to do it and to order his own cooker, which he reports is a cinch to put together. “It uses wing nuts, you don’t need any tools and it only takes about 25 minutes,” he crows.
But it does require meticulous cleaning after each use and must be stored where it can’t get wet, to prevent corrosion.
For their first Pig & Pinot, the hosts invited a crowd of dozens and roasted two 65-pound pigs. Cooper brought his cooker over, and they smothered the pigs with a dry rub; injected them with the marinade, olive oil and white wine; stuffed lots of garlic cloves under the skins; and basted them with hoisin sauce. “We really didn’t know what we were doing. They came out good, not great,” Dolinsky admits.
But thanks to their guests, which included friends, neighbors and a star-studded lineup of local food stars, the accompaniments were stellar. Few came empty-handed, and several contributed restaurant-size side dishes and desserts. There was mac and cheese from Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill), barbecued beans from Barry Sorkin (Smoque), coleslaw from Scott Kac (Scott Dogs) and a stunning spread of desserts, including cakey brownies from Ina Pinkney (Ina’s) and red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting from Debra Sharpe (Feast restaurant and The Goddess and Grocer)—staples that have graced the party every year thanks to the generosity of these chefs. And Goose Island Brewery’s Greg Hall always sets up shop in Dolinsky’s garage to dispense draft beer.
Not surprisingly, the turnout and trappings have grown each year. The party drew almost 200 in 2006, about 250 in 2007 and about 300 last year, when the humble alley also got a campy new party look: a full-length Astroturf carpet Dolinsky scored at Menards.
“Amy thought I was out of my mind, but it was really cheap, so we bought 100 yards,” he reports. She now concedes that it was a great upgrade. “It covered up the potholes and made the alley look like a picnic area in a park,” she says.
The roasted pigs also have improved as the chefs perfect their technique. For example, “the hoisin sauce we used the first year made the skin flaccid and soggy instead of letting it crisp,” Dolinsky says.
They also started brining the meat, a suggestion from Red Light executive chef Jackie Shen, to make it more savory and moist. Working out that process was another creative challenge, which Dolinsky and Cooper solved by bringing in gigantic coolers. “We got three of them and, two days before the party, put a pig in each one, then filled the coolers with about 15 gallons of water, 15 cups of salt, 12 cups of sugar and two or three bags of ice,” explains Dolinsky. They added more ice each day, and before they cooked the meat inserted garlic cloves under the skin and slathered it with the jerk marinade. “We got the best results yet,” says Dolinsky.
This past year, the duo bought a third roaster—the largest size made—and added a 90-pound pig to the menu, cooking up more than 200 pounds of pork.
Despite all the work the party entails, Dolinsky can see only two downsides to the day.
The first is cleanup, which goes faster thanks to neighbors and friends but still takes a good couple of hours. “We have to really hose down the roasting boxes so they don’t attract critters over the winter. And cleaning the coolers took a lot of bleach,” Dordek Dolinsky says.
The second is that Dolinsky’s mother, who lives in Minneapolis, doesn’t come. Last year the event marked his 40th birthday, so “she came on Friday, we had a family birthday dinner on Saturday and she conveniently left on Sunday. I grew up kosher,” he explains.
Cooper is also Jewish but did not grow up in a kosher home. “But where food is concerned, I made Steve a rebel Jew like me,” he quips.
Find the roasters at www.lacajachina.com
Recipe for a back-alley pig roast:
I recommend brining the pig for at least a day or two. You can do this in a large Coleman cooler (150 qt). For every gallon of water you will need:
- 1 cup salt
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 2 tbsp black peppercorns
- 2 tbsp cumin seed
- 2 bay leaves
We used a 60 pound pig, and it needed about 15 gallons of water to cover it. You could also throw in other spices, apple cider vinegar, etc. There are no hard rules here.
1. Get pig from either Birky Family Farm in Valpo, or Peoria Packing on Lake St. Make sure you get it: dressed (gutted), skin-on, scalded and head and trotters intact.
2. Two days before the roast: fill a large, insulated cooler with enough brine solution so that it will cover pig once the pig is placed inside (at least 15 gallons of water); It’s important that the first gallon or so is warm/hot water, so the salt and sugar will dissolve. After it dissolves, continue adding cold water into the cooler. Place the pig into the brine solution, toss a few bags of ice on it, and change/add new bags after 24 hours.
3. On the morning of the roast, remove pig to table (outside) and begin making tiny slits everywhere, stuffing with raw garlic cloves. We used about about three or four heads of garlic.
4. Meanwhile, put 8-10 pounds of charcoal (not hardwood) onto top of Caja China box lid, flood with lighter fluid and ignite. You can get boxes from: www.lacajachina.com
5. Apply Jerk Marinade (recipe below), rubbing it into every possible crevice.
6. Place pig between holding racks that came with La Caja China box to secure it, making sure the pig is butterflied; place pig into box, skin side DOWN over drip tray. Insert meat thermometer (also available from La Caja China website), close lid, start the clock.
After one hour, add another 8-10 pounds of charcoal, spread evenly
After two hours, add another 8-10 pounds of charcoal, spread evenly
(Be sure to keep an eye on the internal temperature. I usually flip the pig over at 140 degrees internal temp, but your cooking times may vary, depending on the heat and the size of the pig).
After another 30 minutes add another 8 pounds of charcoal, spread evenly
At the three hour mark, remove the ash from the top of the box (we put it into a mini-garbage can); open up the box and flip the pig over, skin side UP. Cover again and add about 8 pounds of charcoal.
At three-and-a-half hours, check the skin to see if it’s crispy enough. Keep checking in ten-minute intervals until skin is crispy to your liking (you can also move the lid of the box slightly ajar, if the pig is cooking too much. Keep an eye on the thermometer; once you reach 145 internally, you’ll want to pull it out, as it will continue to cook long after it’s removed.
No need to let it rest very long, maybe 15 minutes. Put on gloves and begin picking/shredding/pulling the pork.
Jerk Wet Rub for Pig
(Courtesy Rick Cooper and chef Susan Goss, West Town Tavern)
- ¾ cup bottled hot sauce
- 1/2cup picked rosemary
- ½ cup chopped parsley
- ½ cup chopped basil
- ½ cup picked thyme
- ¼ cup coarsely ground mustard seeds
- 1 cup chopped scallions
- 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 Tablespoon ground black pepper
- ½ cup fresh lime juice
- ¼ cup Dijon mustard
- ¼ cup fresh orange juice
- 1 Tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 ½ Tablespoon ground allspice
- ¾ teaspoon red chile flakes
- 1 cup canola oil
- 1 quart strong pork stock (or low-sodium chicken stock)
Combine all ingredients except oil and stock in blender and puree to a paste. Add oil slowly through the feed tube and process mixture into smooth sauce consistency. Slowly pour stock through feed tube (if blender is too small to accommodate stock, scrape mixture into bowl and whisk in stock.)
Let mixture age overnight if possible to allow flavors to blend and mellow. Rub it all over the piggy (don’t forget behind the ears!!)