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Small Birds, Big Flavors

A tiny size means less grill time for tender, juicy results, while an easy rub, glaze, and butter jack up flavor.

June/July 2017 Issue
photos: Scott Phillips
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Grilled chicken makes a delicious, if somewhat predictable, summertime meal. For something more exciting but also crowd-pleasing, I love to grill smaller birds whole. Because of their tiny size (see “From Tiny to Small,” below), birds such as game hens, quail, and poussin cook up in a fraction of the time it takes to grill a larger chicken, with results that are amazingly tender and juicy.

Preparation is minimal and done in minutes. There’s very little to do to get small birds ready for the grill. Indeed, the trickiest part may be getting your hands on them in the first place. Cornish game hen is carried at most supermarkets (often frozen), but you might have to go to a specialty market for quail or poussin (or order online). You can also substitute a small chicken, preferably one 3 lb. or less, which will work with the grilling method and flavoring recipes that follow.

Once your bird of choice is in hand, the next step is to butterfly, or spatchcock, it. This technique helps it to cook more quickly and evenly. That word may sound scary, but it’s simply a matter of cutting out the backbone, an easy task with a pair of scissors, and pressing the bird flat with your hands.

Grill the birds over direct heat to start, then finish over indirect heat. Prepared the way most pitmasters grill barbecued chicken, these birds cook up best if they have a hot start and a cooler finish. By starting the birds breast side down over high heat, the skin cooks nicely. While a barbecued bird will not be crisp, the high heat gives the skin nice grill marks and savory flavor. The birds are then moved to a cooler part of the grill to finish cooking without drying out.

Add flavor in stages. When I cook, I add flavor at just about every opportunity. In each of the recipes here, you’ll find a rub for seasoning before grilling, a glaze that gets brushed on during grilling, and a flavored butter slathered on afterward. This may sound like a lot of work, but each component comes together quickly and can be made ahead. The rub imbues flavor, the glaze adds color and sweet tanginess, and the butter adds welcome richness and a tantalizing aroma to the lean birds. All this flavor, plus the joy of something unexpected, makes these small birds something special.

From Tiny to Small: A Guide to Little Birds

Quail: Though technically a game bird, quail is farm-raised nowadays. Small in stature (usually 6 to 8 oz.), quail is big on flavor with medium-dark flesh and a slightly gamey flavor.

Squab: Young pigeons that have never flown, squab have been domesticated for hundreds of years. Like duck, its dark flesh is rich and tender, but it weighs only about 1 lb.

Poussin: Pronounced poo- SAHN, this is a French term for any breed of chicken butchered when less than 28 days old. Weighing about 1¼ lb., poussin is tender with a delicate flavor.

Game hen: These young chickens (most are of the Rock Cornish breed) have short legs and plump breasts. They cook up juicy with a delicate flavor. because they’re so meaty, one 2-lb. bird can serve two people.

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