Cornish hens prove it’s OK to be a little chicken
Recipes capitalize on tender flavor of young birds.
Frank Costanza was right after all. “Seinfeld” fans will recall the 1996 episode when the crusty Costanza, played by Jerry Stiller, pointed to the bird on his plate and asked, “What is this thing anyway?” Told it’s a “Cornish game hen” by his son’s snooty prospective in-laws, he replied, “What is that? Like a little chicken?”
“It’s not a little chicken. Little chicken. Ha. Ha. It’s a game bird, Dad,” interjected his clearly mortified son, George, portrayed by Jason Alexander. As you might guess, the sitcom dinner went rapidly downhill from there.
But a Cornish hen is a little chicken. The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently defines it as “a young immature chicken (usually 5 to 6 weeks of age), weighing not more than 2 pounds ready-to-cook weight, which was prepared from a Cornish chicken or the progeny of a Cornish chicken crossed with another breed of chicken.” Though called a hen, the bird can be male or female.
In 2011, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service lowered the age definition for a Cornish hen from 5 to 6 weeks to less than 5 weeks. This final rule takes effect in 2014, said Cathy Cochran, a USDA spokeswoman in Washington.
Alphonsine “Therese” Makowsky is credited with originally breeding the Cornish hen at a farm in Pomfret, Conn., that she owned with her husband, the artist Jacques Makowsky.
Her 2005 obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle — she was living in Danville, Calif., at the time of her death at age 92 — noted the couple had been raising and selling African guinea hens until a 1949 fire destroyed their stock. In response, the obit reported, she came up with the idea of “cross-breeding the Cornish game cocks with various chicken and game birds, including a White Plymouth Rock hen,” to create the Cornish hen. It quickly supplanted the couple’s African guinea hens in popularity, the Chronicle noted.
Cornish hens proved so chic that Victor Borge, the musical comedian, began breeding them at his home in Southbury, Conn., according to a 1958 story in The Hartford Courant. The writer of a 1960 New York Times article, “Food: Yankee hen is a hit abroad; Even a Frenchman finds Connecticut bird a treat,” marveled at how far the little birds had flown in just 11 years, from a Connecticut farm to being “served in elegant establishments around the world.” In the mid 1960s, Tyson Foods began selling Cornish hens.
The Springdale, Ark.based poultry giant is the leading producer today, marketing an estimated two-thirds of Cornish hens produced in the United States, according to Brady Tackett, a company spokesman.
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Stuff the hens with onions. Brush all over with honey; cover the breast of each with 3 slices bacon or pancetta. Settle into a roasting pan.
Toss the leeks with the oil; add to the pan, tucking them in around the birds. Season with the salt and pepper to taste. Roast, 45-60 minutes. If the bacon begins to blacken, cover hens with foil.
Remove the birds from the pan; keep warm. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the leeks to a serving dish; keep warm. Tilt the pan to one side; skim away any fat. Pour a little hot water into the roasting pan; set over high heat. Heat to a boil, scraping up any crispy bits from the bottom of the pan; simmer for a few minutes. Pour the pan sauce into a gravy boat or pitcher; serve with the hens and the leeks. Serves 6.
If you can get to a grill and have a hankering for holiday cooking outdoors, try this recipe from“Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook.”(The Cornish hens can also be cooked in a grill pan or in the oven at 350 degrees.) Author Robb Walsh calls for a German riesling. A dry white wine will do. He also recommends serving this dish, based on a German recipe, with sweet-andsour sauerkraut.
Prepare a charcoal or gas grill for indirect-heat grilling over medium heat. Meanwhile, carefully remove as much skin as possible from the hens. Season hens with salt and pepper. Combine the glaze ingredients in a bowl; mix thoroughly.
Cook the hen halves, bone side down, directly over the fire until lightly browned. Move them to the cooler part of the grill grate; cover. Cook, turning at midpoint, 20-25 minutes. Prick a thigh with a fork to check for doneness. If the juices run clear, move the hen halves back over the fire; brush them on both sides with the glaze. Finish them, turning often, until nicely browned on both sides. Serves 6.
Cornish game hens for holiday dinners prove the adage: Good things do come in small packages.