Cornish hens prove it’s OK to be a lit­tle chicken

Recipes cap­i­tal­ize on ten­der fla­vor of young birds.

Austin American-Statesman - - FOOD MATTERS - By Bill Da­ley Chicago Tri­bune / CHICAGO TRI­BUNE BILL HO­GAN Cornish hens Glazed with honey and wrapped in Ba­con 4 Cornish hens 2 onions, coarsely chopped 2 ta­ble­spoons honey 12 slices ba­con or pancetta 6 leeks, trimmed, chopped into 2-inch pieces 1 ta­blesp

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.

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