It’s that time of year again, when great surprises come bundled in lovely little packages. One of my favorite ways to carry this theme to the table is roasted Cornish game hens, which make an ideal main course for a special meal. They look and taste great without requiring a huge amount of effort—just a little preparation and straightforward roasting technique. And each bird is a generous single portion, so everyone has his or her own package on the plate. Best of all, Cornish game hens pair well with all kinds of flavors, including citrus, fresh herbs, aromatic spices, dried fruits, wild rice, and even truffle oil.
A roast chicken in miniature. A cross between White Rock and Cornish chickens, Cornish game hens are basically miniature chickens, sometimes also called Rock Cornish hens. (They’re different from poussins, which are young chickens.) Often they’re sold frozen, in which case you’ll need to allow 24 to 48 hours to defrost them in the refrigerator. When I do find these hens fresh in the grocery store, I’m careful to look for those with skin that isn’t torn. I’ll explain why in a moment.
Give little birds big flavor with compound butters or stuffings
There are a few good ways to flavor these roasted birds and make them as succulent as possible.
Make a compound butter to rub under the hens’ skin. Compound butter is nothing more than softened butter combined with zesty ingredients, as in the recipe for Roasted Cornish Game Hens with Tangerine-Herb Butter. Flavored butters can be made in advance and refrigerated or frozen—always a plus when you’re entertaining or-cooking for the holidays—or you can create one easily on a moment’s notice using what you have on hand.
Try a full-flavored stuffing under the skin or in the cavity. A stuffing can be as simple as chopped olives, capers, and herbs, or something more splashy, like the Truffle-Scented Cornish Game Hens with Prosciutto & Wild Mushrooms; my secret weapon there is truffle oil. Like compound butters, you can make a stuffing well in advance and then stuff the birds just before roasting.
Be aware that a game hen’s skin is thinner than a regular chicken’s, and therefore more prone to tearing. That’s why you need to choose hens without tears, so the stuffing stays inside. Also, when slipping a stuffing or butter under the skin, try not to force or overstuff—the skin will rip during roasting if you’ve added too much, so stick to the quantities called for in the recipes. Hens stuffed under the skin need a little less roasting time than if the cavity is stuffed.
Stuffing inside the cavity is, of course, a classic way to add flavor to your game hens. I’m especially fond of couscous and rice stuffings, which you can make a day or two ahead. Make sure that the stuffing is completely cooled, and wait to stuff the hens until right before you roast them.
When roasting Cornish game hens, I use a shallow roasting pan or a jellyroll pan. A wire rack set in the pan is ideal, if it can fit, although it’s not absolutely essential. I’ve had good results roasting game hens without a rack, too. If you don’t have a pan that fits the number of birds you’re roasting, use two smaller pans. Be sure that there’s a little room around the birds for air to circulate and that the pans can sit side by side on the same rack in the oven. You don’t even need to fuss with turning game hens during roasting. I just set them breast side up, brush them with melted butter, and roast at 425°F, and then brush them with melted butter or a glaze halfway through. In less than an hour, you’ll have golden, crisped hens.