The Story of Chicken, Little – New Year's Eve 2007 Cornish Hens
For the main course for our New Year’s Eve dinner this year, after much debate, Mike and I settled on roasted Cornish hens. When planning a do-it-yourself multi-course meal, a main consideration in choosing the entree is timing; it needs to be something that can either be prepared in advance and doesn’t suffer from reheating or something that can pretty much cook unattended during the earlier courses of the meal and be ready to serve on time with minimal fuss. Cornish hens fill the bill, since they cook, even stuffed, in a bit over an hour and don’t require more than a flip and a baste periodically during that time.
Their size is just about perfect, too; half a hen feeds one person nicely. And thanks to the small cavity, even a stuffing containing some carb (as ours did with the Forbidden Rice) isn’t too great a starch load, once divided between two people.
To accompany the split roasted hens and rice stuffing, I opted for two veggies to impart both color and different textures to the plate: Pureed Roasted Butternut Squash and Sauteed Broccolini dressed up with strips of bright red roasted red peppers. In the first case, the squash dish is something you can make earlier in the day or even the day before, rewarm and hold. The broccolini cooks in about 5 minutes in a saute then braise technique that leaves it green and slightly al dente–just like we like it.
To make the squash, just halve and seed one medium squash (for every 4 people). Dot it with butter and sprinkle it with salt, pepper, and cinnamon. You can add a packet of Splenda or Stevia to the cavity if you want it slightly sweeter. Roast at 400-degrees for about an hour until the flesh is very tender. Allow it to cool and then peel away the skin and cut it into chunks. Puree in the blender or food processor, along with about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of vegetable broth to the consistency of mashed potatoes. Put the puree into an oven or microwave safe dish with a lid and refrigerate until ready to reheat and serve. To reheat in the oven, bring the squash to room temperature and then reheat in a slow oven (about 200-degrees) with the cover on for at least 20 to 30 minutes, or until heated through.
The broccolini is even easier. Just wash it and trim the stem ends. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and a smashed clove of garlic in a big skillet over medium heat. Add the broccolini spears, turn the heat up to medium high, and saute them for about 2 minutes. Pour in 1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock, cover, turn heat down to low, and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes until the broth has vanished. Serve. I garnished a couple of large spears on each plate with two crossed strips of warm, roasted red pepper.
Now to the hens.
When confronted with cooking almost any poultry, my go to book is The Cook’s Illustrated Complete Book of Poultry, by the editors of one of my favorite food magazines, Cook’s Illustrated. Cook’s Illustrated bills itself as America’s Test Kitchen and their shtick is that they test every gizmo or recipe a dozen different ways, by different techniques, cooked in different appliances, with different brands of ingredients to try to devine the best advice for getting a fabulous result. I’ve been a reader of their magazine for years and now they’re available online. For about $1.50 a month you can get an online subscription that will put all their invaluable tips and never fail, best recipes a mouse click away.
The most important flavor step in the Cook’s Illustrated method, as it is for all poultry that I ever cook, involves brining the birds beforehand. For four hens, I dissolved 1 cup of Kosher salt in about half a gallon of water in a jumbo zip-closure bag and brined the birds in the bag in the refrigerator for about 4 hours before cooking them. Brining keeps them juicier and makes the meat more flavorful and savory throughout, instead of just on the surface.
In the meantime, make the stuffing of your choice. For this dinner, I made a variation on the Cook’s Illustrated Wild Rice Stuffing with Cranberries and Toasted Pecans (available in their cookbook and on line). The CI recipe calls for wild rice, but I chose to use the gorgeous alternative, Forbidden Rice, a short-grained, heirloom variety that’s inky black in color when dry but turns a deep indigo when cooked. Its taste is nuttier than regular rice and much more like wild rice, but it cooks much faster. It’s supposedly a little higher in protein, fiber, and a few minerals and other nutrients than regular rice, too. For more info than you probably ever wanted on the various types of rice, click here.
Forbidden Rice Stuffing with Dried Cherries and Toasted Pecans
1-1/2 cups chicken broth
3/4 cup Forbidden (Chinese Black) Rice (or substitute wild rice blend, but cook longer)
2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, diced small
3 ribs celery, diced small
1/4 cup toasted pecan pieces
1/4 cup dried cherries
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a boil, add rice, return to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for about 30 minutes until rice is tender.
2. In the meantime, melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Saute onions and celery until softened, about 3 to 4 minutes.
3. Add the onions and celery as well as the pecans, cherries, parsley, and thyme to the rice and toss to combine.
4. Season with salt and pepper and toss again.
5 You can stuff warm mixture into poultry cavity or turn into a serving dish and serve immediately as a side.
Note: If you are, as we were, stuffing 4 birds for 8 people, you will probably have stuffing left over. I’d estimate that it took about 60% of the recipe above to stuff the four hens adequately. Even if you use it all, however, the carb cost on the stuffing is 15.8 grams for 1/8 of the recipe. Not super low, but not bad for a holiday treat!
When you’re ready to roast, rinse the birds, pat them dry with paper towels, stuff them with about 1/2 cup of the Forbidden Rice stuffing, brush them with a bit of glaze (made by whisking together 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar with 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1/8 cup dry white wine) and put them breast side down on an oiled rack in a roasting pan and roast them at 400-degrees for about 20 to 25 minutes. Flip them breast side up and brush on the glaze again. Pour 1 cup of liquid (water, broth, wine, some combination thereof) into the roasting pan and roast for an additional 20 minutes. Brush the hens again, add a little more liquid to the pan, turn up the heat to 450, and roast another 5 or 10 minutes more. Let them rest for 10 minutes or so. To serve, split each hen in half lengthwise; poultry shears work better than a knife for this operation.
Next up a brief blog on the stinky, nutty, runny, yummy star of our cheese course: Epoisses. And then on to that, which judging by my many emails and the comments, is what you’ve all been waiting for the low carb Creme Brulee.