If you don’t want to wrestle with a big turkey or ham for your holiday buffet, Cornish hens are a good alternative.
They’re inexpensive, petite (perfect for a small gathering) and can make for an elegant presentation.
Most are sold frozen and come two to a package. Recently, I picked up a package — normally $7-$8 — on sale for $5.
One hen weighs just more than a pound with its bone, though some can weigh up to 2 pounds each. A whole Cornish hen is enough for one generous serving. Or you can split the hen in half for two servings.
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Another bonus: Cornish hens thaw quickly — overnight in the refrigerator should do. You can also thaw them in the microwave, but they need to be cooked immediately afterward.
Cornish hens are best oven-roasted or grilled. Because they are small, whole ones cook in less than an hour.
If you’ve split them in half, they’ll cook in even less time. Another way to cook them quickly is to cut the back out and flatten them. In culinary terms this is to spatchcock or to butterfly. (This month’s Martha Stewart Living and Food Network magazines have recipes for preparing turkey this way.) Roasted or grilled flattened, the hens will cook more evenly.
After the hens are completely thawed, turn them over so they are breast side down. Cut along each side of the backbone, removing and discarding the backbone.
From this point, you can turn each bird over and flatten the whole hen or cut it in half along the breastbone and roast.
A surefire way to guarantee that the hens will be moist is to brine them first. For four Cornish hens, soak the birds in a mixture of about 3/4 cup salt and 1/4 cup sugar in a gallon of water for about 6 hours.
When ready to roast, remove from the brine and rinse. Pat dry with paper towels. If you prefer crisp skin, place the hens on a tray or in a baking dish and refrigerate overnight so the skin dries out. This will also help seal in the juices and keep the meat moist. You can remove the skin after roasting if desired.
ORANGE-GLAZED CORNISH HENS
Serves: 2-4 / Preparation time: 10 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Be sure to season the hens and place in the refrigerator overnight — or at least 1 hour before roasting — to dry the skin.
2 Cornish hens, thawed, if frozen, and giblets, if any, removed
Salt and pepper to taste
Nonstick cooking spray
1 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
3/4 cup orange marmalade or apricot preserves
1 generous tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup less-sodium, fat-free chicken broth
Pat the hens dry. Season the cavity and the entire hens with salt and pepper to taste.
If you plan on cooking them flat, cut the hens along each side of the backbone to flatten or cut in half entirely. If roasting them whole, tie the legs together with kitchen string.
Place the seasoned hens in a baking dish and refrigerate at least 1 hour.
When ready to cook, preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a small saucepan, whisk together the five spice powder, marmalade or preserves, mustard, orange juice and chicken broth. Heat over medium until the marmalade is melted and the mixture is almost smooth (there will be bits of orange peel from the marmalade).
Divide the sauce mixture in half; set aside one half to serve with the cooked hens.
Place the hens on a broiler pan rack. Drizzle with some of the reserved sauce.
Place in the oven and roast for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and drizzle the hens again with the apricot sauce.
Continue roasting, basting occasionally, until the hens are done, about 30 minutes more or until cooked through. Remove from the oven, and let stand 10 minutes before serving. If serving 4, cut each hen in half and serve with the sauce.
From and tested by Susan M. Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.