Roasting a whole turkey or goose might be a Christmas tradition from years past, but if you find yourself in a scaled down version of Christmas family gathering, consider scaling down your meal as well. Cornish game hens give you all the flavor of an entire roasted bird with almost none of the work. It’s even easier to add or subtract from your overall meal preparation if a last minute guest arrives, or weather forces a cancellation.
These birds may seem diminutive, but their cook time is still over an hour since they’ll be stuffed. We’re not going to be timid in the stuffing either. These birds are getting stuffed with a sausage and citrus dressing and basted with a citrus glaze. Far from an island flavor, they are packed with savory and tart flavors enhanced with herbs and seasonings.
The hens will need a bit tending before we can stuff and roast them. Like their older siblings, game hens usually have the giblets stuffed into the cavity and small pin feathers still attached. They’ll need a bath under cold running water. We’re not looking to scrub away microscopic bacteria here. We just want to remove the unpalatable bits we can see, such as bone chips, the remainders of organs and other detritus on the surface of the bird. Once they have been rinsed, pat them dry, both inside and out.
We’re also going to season the birds, inside and out, with a coarse ground salt and pepper. Seasoning the inside of the cavity may not impart much flavor to the bird, but it does add more flavor to the stuffing. Since the stuffing will also be seasoned, limit the amount you put in the bird to a pinch. Before stuffing, you’ll also want to reposition the wings with the tips up and behind the neck, as if the hen were stretching upward and scratching it’s back. This not only keeps the wing tips secured during roasting, it also protects the tips from burning, and keeps them out of the way of the breast for even browning.
Since these birds are so small, we’re not going to roast them in a roasting pan. The high sides of the pan would keep them from browning properly. Instead, these will get roasted on a baking sheet. Depending on how many birds you will be cooking, you may need a smaller sheet than the typical half-sheet pan which fits six birds perfectly. Just be sure to line them up with their necks facing the middle of the pan and the stuffing end to edges for proper browning and cooking.
Whatever pan drippings you end up with, don’t get rid of those. They make the perfect light gravy to spoon on top of your finished bird. The sauce should barely be thickened unlike traditional gravies. And should be used in moderation. With the citrus glaze, the pan drippings will be more tart than meaty. But they are absolutely divine spooned atop steamed or sautéed vegetables and potatoes.
If a big family gathering isn’t in the plans this year, you can still have the big flavors in a perfect single-serving size.
Citrus Roasted Cornish Game Hens
- 1 medium onion (about a cup), diced
- medium ground kosher salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon dried sage
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 4 tablespoons butter (½ stick)
- 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary
- 1 tablespoon lemon peel
- 2 cups stale bread cubes, not dried
- ½ lb bulk plain sausage
- ½ cup whole milk
- 6, 1 to 1½ pound game hens
- 1 12oz jar pineapple preserves
- 4 oz of sherry, madeira, marsala, or dry white wine
- 2 Tbs of butter
Sautee the onion and herbs in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until the onions are tender and fragrant. Remove form the heat and allow to cool slightly. In the large workbowl of a food processor, pulse all of the stuffing ingredients together, minus the milk, until you have course crumbs. Then add the milk and pulse to combine.
Clean game hens and season inside and out with medium ground salt and pepper. Divide the stuffing equally, and loosely stuff the game hens. Roast the game hens on a baking sheet, stuffing side facing out, in a 350°F with convection on for 30 minutes. Simmer the ingredients for the glaze until it is reduced by half, for about fifteen to twenty minutes. Glaze the game hens after 30 minutes and roast for another 30 minutes, glaze, and then roast for another 20 minutes. Remove hens from the baking sheet and set aside while you finish the sauce.
Strain pan drippings into a saucepan skimming off fat. Simmer adding 2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 3 tablespoons cold water. Simmer until slightly thickened. Ladle over hens, or serve on the side.
Before serving, cut each hen in half through the breastbone and backbone serving both halves per person. Garnish with fresh rosemary and sage sprigs.
If you need to double this recipe, make the stuffing in two batches. This recipe will fill six game hens. If you have leftover stuffing, place it in a small casserole dish and roast for the last 20 minutes with the game hens.