Thanksgiving has come and gone, but roasted birds still feel seasonally appropriate. Today, I roasted some Cornish Game Hen with a sweet and herby apple flavor and topped it off with a tangy orange cranberry mustard sauce.
I’ve had it in my head all week that I wanted to cook quail. Granted, I’ve never had quail before and I don’t even know what it is I’d like to do with it, but I wanted it. Well, they were impossible to find so I settled on Cornish Game Hens, which is still a bird I’ve never worked with before, but it wasn’t quail, so I was little peeved. I then hit up my pile of recipe books for inspiration to see what I could do with these, and there was close to nothing there (and what was there really didn’t sound terribly interesting). So my bad mood began to develop a little further. I sat and I planned, but nothing was really coming to me. As dinner time approached and hunger started to kick in, I just decided to raid the fridge, start working, and just see what hit me. A few leftover items caught my attention: cranberries, a lone orange, some apple-smoked bacon (this sounds good already!), and thyme. I grabbed that and just went for other things that seemed relevant: a piddly amount of orange marmalade, an apple, rosemary, and on and on.
Somehow, this all miraculously crystallized into a dish that I am really proud of both conceptually and flavor-wise, and considering the lack of planning (usually a bad thing for me), it was stunningly easy to put together. The hens were incredibly juicy and tender. They had a sweet, herby, apple undertone cooked into them as I glazed the hens with a spiced, honey mixture and roasted them sandwiched between fresh apple, thyme, rosemary, and apple smoked bacon (for flavor and added fat–Cornish Game Hens have no real dark meat!). This was all finished off with a tangy orange cranberry mustard sauce that paired really nicely but also didn’t overpower the subtle flavors cooked into the hen. The sauce also carried several components shared by the hen which I think really helped it pair so well (rosemary, thyme, orange, and honey) while adding some interesting complexity (bitter cranberries, lively orange, and sour/slightly spicy mustard are neato together). I have also submit this as my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by Astrid from Paulchen’s Food Blog.
- 2 Cornish game hens
- 1 oz orange marmalade
- 1/2 tsp ginger paste
- 1.5 tsp honey
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 1 Tbsp vermouth
- 1 apple
- several sprigs of thyme (a good handful)
- 4-5 sprigs of rosemary
- ground black pepper
- Orange Cranberry Mustard Sauce
- 1 cup fresh cranberries
- 1 cup water
- 3/4 cup sugar
- zest of one orange
- 4 whole cloves
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- juice of one orange juice
- 1 sprig of rosemary
- 5 or so sprigs of thyme
- 3/4 cup coarse mustard
- 1 Tbsp honey
- black pepper
- white pepper
- cayenne pepper
First, prepare the hens so that they’re in single serving size. This is commonly done by halving each hen, so that each person gets a half (and its the perfect serving: you get a wing, a drumstick, and half a breast!). So remove the giblets (if present), rinse the hens in the sink, pat dry, and then, with a sharp and heavy knife, slice just beside the backbone down the length of the hen, starting at the neck and go all the way down to the butt (it will be a little tough by the pelvis area–don’t worry about cutting all the way through if its difficult. No sense damaging your knife). You might get a little resistance from the rib cage, but that should snap pretty easily–the ribs are like toothpicks. Once you have made the bulk of the cut, you can easily just pick up the hen and fold it to break or dislocate any remaining bones that are keeping you from cutting the backside in half (like the pelvis–tough to cut but very easy to snap). With the backside split in two, now continue the cut down through the front (the only tough spot here is the breastbone–but again, folding in half will snap this easier than hacking with a knife), slicing the entire bird in half. If you easily remove the ribs or the backbone from this, go for it, but if you think you’ll hack up the meat trying, don’t bother.
So now all of your hens are halved and clean. At this point, we want to prepare a simple glaze so that the birds will take on a nice color, texture, and flavor in the oven. In a small bowl, simply mix all of the glaze ingredients and zap it in the microwave for 30 seconds or so just to make it more liquidy and easier to work with. The honey offers some sweetness and combined with the butter, will help brown the birds a bit. The marmalade brings a different angle on sweetness while the touch of ginger gives that kick of spice that the glaze needs (and it goes very nicely with apple). The vermouth was honestly more about adding a little more liquid to the glaze. Take this opportunity to preheat your oven to 350?F.
Before we glaze the hens, slice an apple into about 12 wedges, discarding the core. Also have your fresh herbs handy (sprigs of thyme and rosemary).
So now, lay 3 apple wedges close together and lay down some rosemary and thyme in no particular pattern. Coat a hen half with the glaze (its not a lot, don’t worry if it looks like its not much) and lay it cavity side down on top of the pile of apple wedges. So you want the hen half skin side up with the apples piled directly underneath where the body naturally has room for the apples. Repeat this for each hen half. I was able to fit all four pieces in one roasting pan. Lay any remaining fresh herbs over the top of the hens or pressed down between them. Don’t worry how it looks–this is all for aromatics. Finish them off with a sprinkling of salt and ground black pepper and pour any remaining glaze over the birds.
Now, apple is one of the key aromatics at play, so lets take it further with the automatic successful meal ingredient: bacon. I opted to use apple smoked bacon to further the essence of apple that I wanted roasted into the hen, but if you can’t, no worries. I laid three thick cut strips on top and across the hens. It seems a little sparse, but I wanted to give a little flavor and a little bit of fat and I feel like this is the perfect amount. Any more bacon might dominate the flavors we’re trying to create.
So with the roasting pan all good to go, slide this into the oven. It should be roasting for about 45 minutes to an hour (a meat thermometer should read about 165?F when the hens are done). After about 15-20 minutes, things should be starting to get juicy, so once that happens, baste the hens with the drippings at least once every 10 minutes (you wouldn’t want to let all of that bacon fat go to waste, right?).
While the hens are cooking, on to the sauce. This is really easy to make, and if you’ve ever made cranberry sauce before, this is not at all a stretch. In a saucepan, simply mix the sugar and water and bring it to a boil on high heat, stirring periodically to get the sugar dissolved into a syrup.
While you wait on that, rinse off the cranberries, being sure to discard any wrinkly, white, or otherwise defective looking ones from the bunch. Also take this opportunity to zest your orange (I just pared off large strips of the rind and diced it thinly–it will candy up nicely in the sauce, so don’t worry about large chunks of peel).
Once the syrup is boiling, add in the cranberries and zest. Also add in the fresh herbs (don’t bother dicing or removing the leaves from the stem–we’ll remove them once done cooking) as well as the whole cloves and fennel seeds (these will release some really nice strong, savory flavors that will linger in the back of the sauce–not too forward, but still present). In about a minute or two, the mixture should start to boil again, at which point, you should drop the heat to medium. Within five minutes, the cranberries should be popping and bursting apart, so be sure to stir periodically. Things ought to be smelling pretty nice by now.
After about 5 more minutes of simmering and stirring, juice the orange (which you zested earlier) into the sauce and add in all of the remaining ingredients. I like to use coarsely ground mustard for a more interesting texture, but if you’re not nuts about all of those mustard seeds, you could always use a smooth dijon instead. Stir everything together and let simmer for another 5 minutes or so, at which point you can turn off the heat (but leave the saucepan on the burner to keep it warm while you wait for your hens to finish roasting). Also, don’t forget to fish out the herbs and whole cloves (if you can find them!).
So now, I’ll assume that the hens are done roasting and have reached a safe internal temperature. Remove from the oven and let it rest for a few minutes.
Each plate gets a half of a hen and a good sized spoon of sauce. I included one of the apple wedges for garnish (and couldn’t think of a nice way to include the bacon for garnish) and served with a side of mashed potatoes and stuffing. Enjoy!