If you're not having a large crowd for Thanksgiving, rather than serving the traditional turkey, consider an American bird of a different feather -- the Rock Cornish game hen.
Although this 20th century invention, a result of crossbreeding gamecocks with Plymouth Rock hens, does not enjoy the distinction of being consumed by the Pilgrims in 1621, the diminutive birds do boast a myriad of other advantages.
More exotic than turkeys, which have become commonplace on the dinner table (in the last decade consumption has risen from 10.4 pounds to 18.5 pounds per capita), game hens are impressive without being mundane.
Unlike the wattle-necked bird, the hens don't require you to get up at the crack of dawn to put them in the oven -- they roast to golden goodness in about one hour. The frantic last-minute hassle of carving the meat while keeping the accompaniments hot is eliminated by each guest carving his or her own bird. And there will never be any fighting over parts, since each impressive serving has two legs, two wings and all white meat.
Several years ago, game hens were sold fresh, but now they can be found in the freezer section. Some markets sell them in two sizes: the smaller variety weighs between 1 and 1 1/4 pounds, a perfect portion for one; the larger weigh 1 1/2 to 2 pounds. If the smaller size is unavailable, you may wish to split the bigger ones in half.
If you wish to serve the birds boned, but are not up to tackling the task yourself, check with the meat department in your market. Many butchers will bone them for a small fee. Instruct them to remove the breast, back and thigh bones, keeping the drumstick and wings intact.
Filled with white and wild rice studded with chopped apples and currants, my orange glazed hens are basted with a chutney-laced sauce that turns them a deep, dark chestnut brown. The recipe is simple to prepare -- the only time-consuming step is cutting the julienned orange peel, which adds a touch of elegance to the sauce. As long as the stuffing is cool before it is put into the hens, they may be stuffed several hours ahead and refrigerated until baking time. The recipe yields enough stuffing for five large hens.
You can test the birds for doneness the same way you would turkey or chicken. Jiggle a leg -- it should move freely. Or prick the meat near the thigh joint with a fork; when the juices run clear yellow, they are done. As a rule of thumb, game hens bake about 45 to 60 minutes per pound at 375 degrees.
Yam timbales, pretty individual portions of soft, silky custards perfumed with cinnamon and ginger, are an ideal accompaniment to the hens, but they make a colorful side dish for turkey and chicken as well. Bake them in any container that holds 3/4 cup liquid -- fluted molds, brichoe tins, souffle dishes or custard cups. They may be baked a day ahead, unmolded, refrigerated overnight and reheated before serving.
Snow peas with water chestnuts are a simple, tasty vegetable that go particularly well with meats served with a sauce. If fresh snow peas are available, they are preferable, but frozen work well too.
Whether your guest list is maxi or mini or your fowl is large or small, I hope your Thanksgiving is abundant with warmth, love and good cheer.
Orange-glazed Cornish hen
4 Cornish game hens (about 1 1/4 pounds each)
salt and pepper
1 package (6 ounces) long-grain white and wild rice
1/2 cup peeled, diced green apple (about 1/2 an apple)
1/4 cup coarsely chopped salted peanuts
1 jar (12 ounces) chutney, chopped
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/4 teaspoon poultry seasoning
3 tablespoons currants or chopped raisins
3 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
1 small orange
1/2 cup orange juice
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1/4 cup dry red wine
Remove hens from wrapping, remove giblets and save for another use. Dry hens well. Salt and pepper cavities. Prepare rice according to directions on package. Cool to room temperature. Stir in apples, peanuts, 2 heaping tablespoons chutney, ginger, poultry seasoning, currants or raisins. Spoon stuffing into cavity of hens. You will have a little left over. Tie legs together with string. Note: Hens may be refrigerated covered for several hours before baking, if desired.
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Brush top of hens with melted butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place hens on rack in shallow roasting pan. Bake for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, peel oranges with vegetable peeler into long strips. Place strips on cutting board and cut into very thin slivers. Bring a small pot of water to a boil and boil orange strips for 2 minutes. Drain and dry on paper towels.