My 70 year-old Aunt Stephanie joined us for the first Christmas dinner I ever cooked. Mom asked me to keep the menu light. While my youthful, iron-clad stomach couldn’t comprehend too rich a meal, I complied, serving Cornish Game Hen as the main course. Cracking open Cook’s Illustrated’s small, pink cookbook on holiday roasts, I prepared brined, balsamic-glazed hens that were moist and golden brown, filled with a wild rice stuffing.
Having cooked for fifteen on the 23rd, I was faced with a second, smaller Christmas dinner on the 25th. Without a recipe, I wandered bulk product in Whole Foods, picking up Israeli couscous, dried Turkish figs and apricots, and preserved lemons. It was a wonderful balance of sweet and tart, rich with couscous plumped with homemade stock. Drawing upon my stash from Spices, LTD – my spice hook up at North Market in Columbus, OH – their Aqua blend of candied lemon, dill and Sonoma sea salt brightened the flavors and added needed complexity.
Mom was happy, Aunt Stephanie would have been proud, and I hope Christopher Kimball would have been too.
Israeli Couscous Stuffed Cornish Game Hen
Cornish Hens brine in only 2-3 hours, so you can start this dish the afternoon before your meal.
- 4 Cornish game hens
- 2-3 cups coarse Kosher salt
- 1 carrot, diced
- 1 onion, diced
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 2 tbs cold butter
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1 onion, diced
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp turmeric
- freshly grated nutmeg
- 2 cups Israeli couscous
- 4 cups homemade vegetable or chicken stock
- 1/2 cup diced, dried Turkish figs
- 1/4 cup diced dried apricots
- 1/4 cup diced preserved lemon
- 1/4 cup chopped, fresh parsley
- cayenne pepper
- Aqua salt blend or coarse sea salt
Brine Cornish Game Hens:
- In a cooler or large pot, dissolve 2 cups salt in 2 gallons of water. Rinse hens thoroughly inside and out, under cold running water. Submerge in brine. As needed, add additional water and salt to cover. Add 6 cups of ice and set aside for 2-3 hours in the refrigerator or on the patio if you’re lucky enough to be spending the winter somewhere cold.
Make couscous stuffing:
- While the hens brine, prepare the stuffing. Warm the oil over medium-low heat in a large sauté pan (use one that has a lid).
- Add the onions and sauté until softened and translucent, 5-8 minutes. Add the turmeric, cinnamon and a pinch of nutmeg, along with the dry couscous. Cook for 5 minutes until couscous is lightly toasted.
- Add stock and turn heat to medium high. Bring the stock to a boil, cover and reduce to low. Let cook for 10-15 minutes until the liquid has been absorbed.
- Transfer couscous to a microwave safe bowl. Stir in chopped fruit and parsley. Season to taste with a pinch of cayenne pepper, black pepper and Aqua salt blend or coarse sea salt.
Cook Cornish Game Hens:
- Remove hens from brine, rinse inside and out with cold water, and pat dry. Prick skin all over with the tip of a paring knife.
- Heat oven to 400 degrees.
- Whisk together balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Set aside.
- Microwave stuffing until very hot. Fill the cavity with stuffing and secure the skin flap with trussing skewers and tie together the legs. You can secure the wings to the body with more string, but that seems like a lot of work and doesn’t make a huge difference with so small a bird.
- Scatter onion, carrot, thyme and bay leaves in the bottom of a roasting pan. Place hens, breast side down and wings out, on top of a roasting rack set in the pan.
- Roast 1: Roast hens, for 25 minutes, on a rack set in the middle of the oven.
- Roast 2: Remove pan from oven, turn hens breast side up and legs out. Whisk vinegar and oil, and brush birds with the mix. Add two cups of stock to the bottom of the pan and return to the oven for 15 minutes.
- Roast 3: Remove hens from oven and baste again with oil and vinegar mix. Return to oven a final time and roast until both stuffing and thigh register 165 on an instant read thermometer. Remove hens from oven and place on a serving platter. Tent with foil and let rest for 10 minutes.
Make pan sauce:
- Meanwhile, place roasting pan on stove top and reduce pan juices to 3/4 cup. Strain juices into a small sauté pan and discard solids. Add white wine and any juices that have accumulated under the resting hens.
- Reduce liquid to 3/4 cups, remove from heat and whisk in the cold butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve alongside hens.