My family has always insisted that the centerpiece of our Christmas feast be some kind of show-stopping roast. We're talking a standing rib roast or whole beef tenderloin. And, as if these prizes were not already rich enough in themselves, we tend to pair them with an extravagant sauce, usually bearnaise. Hey, it's Christmas.
My challenge for this column was to come up with a Christmas dinner showstopper just as glamorous as the usual stars, but somehow leaner. It couldn't be pork because my parents don't love pork. It might have been turkey, but we just featured it at Thanksgiving. And roast chicken — much as I love it — just seemed too prosaic for a once-a-year holiday feast.
Then it occurred to me that Cornish game hens might fit the bill. You can say that they're small, or at least small-ish, but I prefer to think about them as individual. They were created during the '50s, after all, by a French couple in Connecticut who wanted something that didn't exist at the time — a succulent bird suitable for a single serving.
Herb Roasted Cornish Game Hens
with Creamy Mustard Sauce
¼ cup finely chopped fresh sage, plus extra to garnish
¼ cup finely chopped fresh thyme leaves, plus 1 large sprig for the stock, and extra to garnish
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 ½ teaspoons salt
Four 1 ¼-pound Cornish game hens
1 pound chicken wings, separated into joints
1 cup coarsely chopped yellow onion
½ cup coarsely chopped carrot
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 tablespoon tomato paste
½ cup red wine
1 ½ cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon cornstarch
½ cup evaporated skim milk
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a small bowl, combine the sage, thyme leaves, lemon zest and salt.
Very carefully separate the skin from the meat on the breast and thighs of each hen, lifting it lightly from the meat without removing it. Rub a quarter of the herb blend directly onto the breast and thigh meat (under the skin) of each hen. Cover and chill the hens. This step can be done up to 8 hours ahead.
Meanwhile, in a large saucepan or Dutch oven arrange the chicken wings in a single layer. Roast the wings on the oven's middle rack for 15 minutes, then turn them and roast for another 15 minutes, or until they are golden. Add the onion, carrot, garlic, tomato paste and the thyme sprig, then roast for another 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are slightly caramelized. Turn off the oven.
Set the pan of wings and vegetables over medium heat on the stove top. Add the wine and bring to a simmer, scraping the bottom to release the browned bits. Simmer until the wine is reduced by half. Add the chicken broth and enough cold water to cover the wings by 1 inch. Bring the liquid to a boil and simmer for 2 hours, adding water as necessary to keep the wings covered.
After the liquid has simmered for 1 ½ hours, heat the oven to 475 degrees.
Remove the hens from the refrigerator and use paper towels to pat them dry. Coat them lightly with olive oil cooking spray, then use cooking twine to tie the legs together. Arrange the hens on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Roast them in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes, or until a thermometer inserted at the leg-thigh joint registers 165 F.
Transfer the hens to a platter, and let them rest, loosely covered with foil, for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, when the chicken stock has simmered for 2 hours, strain the mixture into a large bowl, discarding the solids. Skim off and discard any fat on top of the stock. Wipe clean the pot used to make the stock, then pour the stock back into it. Return it to the stove top over high heat and boil until reduced to 1 cup, about 10 minutes.
In a small cup, whisk together the cornstarch and the evaporated skim milk. While whisking constantly, add the cornstarch mixture to the simmering stock. Continue whisking until thickened, then whisk in the mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Add the juices from the resting hens to the sauce. Transfer the hens to plates and pour some of the sauce over each one. Garnish with fresh thyme and sage.
Nutritional information per serving: 510 calories (160 calories from fat, 31 percent of total calories), 17g fat (4.5g saturated, 0g trans fats), 265mg cholesterol, 14g carbohydrates, 2g fiber, 6g sugar, 63g protein, 1,220mg sodium.