Wonderfully Big Flavor In a Small Package

SUNDAY GOURMET

February 18, 1996|By Cathy Thomas

Cornish game hens are plump little birds brimming with savory juices. Bursting with flavor. Delectable.

Sure they're small. But that's one of their most endearing traits. Small means they're fast to cook and easy to serve.

Like popcorn and peanut butter, Cornish game hens are an American culinary invention, a result of crossbreeding Cornish bantam roosters and Plymouth Rock hens.

The average weight is 1 to 1 1/2 pounds. If you like, serve them whole, one generous bird per person. They look beautiful on the plate -- their crisp wings tucked akimbo under bronze-colored breasts.

But served whole, they are harder to eat -- definitely a sharp knife-and-fork kind of meal. Plus, lots of folks don't want to eat that much meat. To make them easier to eat (and decrease cooking time), cut the birds in halves or quarters. (Your butcher will probably cut the hens for you upon request, even frozen hens. But with a sharp knife or poultry scissors, you can easily cut them yourself.)

Arrange cooked halves or quarters on a bed of roasted vegetables, rice pilaf or mixed greens tossed with a little vinaigrette -- that way, they won't look skimpy. Or chill the cooked hens in an airtight container and make them the centerpiece at a tailgate picnic.

Cooking whole: Roasting is the best method for cooking whole game hens. Use a bed of vegetables, broth and herbs under the hens; the mixture will make a sauce while the birds roast.

Game hens are firmer and moister than chickens. They don't dry out as quickly. But for added flavor, snuggle a little herb-butter mixture (or marinade or stuffing) between the skin and meat before roasting. Roast with the breast side up. (See whole-bird roasting recipe below.)

Cooking halves or quarters: Hen pieces are more versatile. Bake or grill. Depending on their size, halves roast in about 30-40 minutes in a 425-degree oven; quarters in about 25-35 minutes. Grilling times are similar but can vary according to size and heat.

ROASTED GAME HENS WITH VEGETABLES

2 whole Cornish game hens

2 tablespoons butter or margarine, divided use, plus butter or margarine for greasing pan

salt and pepper

4 tablespoons minced fresh thyme, divided use

cotton string

optional: 1/2 small butternut squash, sliced, peeled and cut into 3-by-1-inch pieces

8 white boiling onions, cut in half

6 ounces peeled baby carrots

8 ounces small red potatoes, cut in half

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/3 cup chicken broth

salt and pepper

optional: a little olive oil to drizzle on potatoes

optional garnish: sprigs of fresh thyme

Preliminaries: Remove giblets from hens. Wash with cold water and pat dry, including the cavity. Pull out and discard the excess fat pads on both sides of the cavity opening. Grease a large roasting pan with butter.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Procedure: Place 1/2 tablespoon butter or margarine in cavity of each bird. Season cavity with salt and pepper. Add 1/2 tablespoon minced thyme to each. Bring the ends of the drumsticks together and tie with cotton string.

Place hens in prepared roasting pan, breast side down. Surround with vegetables: squash (if using), onions, carrots and potatoes. Combine lemon juice and chicken broth. Pour over ingredients in roasting pan. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons minced thyme and cover with aluminum foil.

Roast for 20 minutes in a 400-degree oven.

Remove foil. Using a large spatula, turn birds breast side up. Rub each bird with 1/2 tablespoon of butter. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon minced thyme over hens. Ladle pan juices over vegetables. If desired, drizzle a little olive oil on the potatoes; it will help them to brown. Season birds and vegetables with a little salt and pepper.

Return to oven, uncovered, and roast an additional 50-55 minutes. Check after 45 minutes; if birds are getting too brown, cover loosely with aluminum foil. Hens are done when juices run clear and internal temperature reaches 175 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh.

Cooking teacher and cookbook author Hugh Carpenter marinates and bakes game hens in a spicy Asian glaze that is spread under the skin. I like to quarter them -- they cook faster. Serve over cooked rice. A wild rice-white rice mix tossed with sliced green onions works well.

ROAST GAME HENS IN SPICY ASIAN GLAZE

Makes 4 servings

2 game hens, quartered

2 tablespoons butter, unsalted preferred, cut into small pieces

SAUCE:

1/4 cup white sesame seeds

2 tablespoons finely minced fresh ginger

1 green onion, trimmed and minced

1 tablespoon grated or minced orange peel (zest), colored part only

3 tablespoons hoisin sauce

2 tablespoons orange marmalade

2 tablespoons dry sherry

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon plum sauce

1 teaspoon Chinese chili sauce

Preliminaries: Fifteen minutes before baking, heat oven to 425 degrees.

Wash game hens in cold water and pat dry with paper towels.

Procedure: Toast sesame seeds in a dry skillet until golden. In a small bowl, combine ginger, green onion and orange peel; stir in toasted sesame seeds. Add remaining sauce ingredients and stir to blend.

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