Prepare the hens
Using poultry shears, remove the backbones from the hens by cutting along both sides. Set each hen breast side up on a cutting board and flatten by pressing down on the breastbone with your palms. With a chef’s knife, split each hen in two along the breastbone. Extend the wings on each side and chop off the last two joints. Discard any large deposits of fat. Chop or break each backbone into 2 pieces and set aside with the wing tips.
In a small bowl, combine the sage and thyme with 1 Tbs. salt and 1 tsp. pepper. Pat the hens dry and rub the herb mixture on both sides of each hen. Arrange the hens skin side up on a rimmed baking sheet so they aren’t touching and refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 12 hours or overnight.
Make the broth and start the sauce
Pat the reserved wings and back bones dry. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a 3- to 4-quart saucepan. Add the wings and back bones and cook, stirring a few times, until browned on all sides, about 8 minutes. Add the chicken broth, chopped shallot, and reserved sage and thyme stems. Simmer gently, adjusting the heat as needed, for 30 minutes. Strain, discarding the solids. Cool the broth and refrigerate overnight.
Combine the port and cranberries for the sauce in a small bowl, cover, and let sit overnight.
Roast the hens
An hour before roasting, remove the hens from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature. Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 450°F.
Melt the 1 Tbs. butter and brush it lightly over the hens. Roast, rotating the pan about halfway though, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of a thigh reads 175°F to 180°F, about 30 minutes. Let rest at least 5 minutes before serving.
Make the sauce
While the hens roast, skim the fat from the broth and heat the broth in a small saucepan. Heat the 1 Tbs. butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the minced shallot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shallot is tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook, whisking gently, until it forms a thick paste, about 30 seconds. Strain the port through a fine sieve into the saucepan, reserving the cranberries (don’t press down on the berries). Whisk for about 30 seconds. Slowly whisk in the broth until the sauce is smooth, adjusting the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Simmer, whisking occasionally, until reduced by about one-third, 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the reserved cranberries. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm.
Just before serving, pour any accumulated juices from the hens into the sauce. Serve the hens drizzled with the sauce.
To drink: Fleur Vineyards Petite Sirah 2007 ($16) from the north coast of California has exceptionally dark red fruits and soft, delicate tannins, a perfect balance for this dish.
nutrition information (per serving):
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Photo: Scott Phillips