My 70 year-old Aunt Stephanie joined us for the first Christmas dinner I ever cooked. Mom asked me to keep the menu light. While my youthful, iron-clad stomach couldn’t comprehend too rich a meal, I complied, serving Cornish Game Hen as the main course. Cracking open Cook’s Illustrated’s small, pink cookbook on holiday roasts, I prepared brined, balsamic-glazed hens that were moist and golden brown, filled with a wild rice stuffing.
Having cooked for fifteen on the 23rd, I was faced with a second, smaller Christmas dinner on the 25th. Without a recipe, I wandered bulk product in Whole Foods, picking up Israeli couscous, dried Turkish figs and apricots, and preserved lemons. It was a wonderful balance of sweet and tart, rich with couscous plumped with homemade stock. Drawing upon my stash from Spices, LTD – my spice hook up at North Market in Columbus, OH – their Aqua blend of candied lemon, dill and Sonoma sea salt brightened the flavors and added needed complexity.
Mom was happy, Aunt Stephanie would have been proud, and I hope Christopher Kimball would have been too.
Israeli Couscous stuffed Cornish Game Hen
Cornish Hens brine in only 2-3 hours, so you can start this dish the afternoon before your meal.
- 4 cornish game hens
- 2-3 cups coarse Kosher salt
- 1 carrot, diced
- 1 onion, diced
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 2 tbs cold butter
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1 onion, diced
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp turmeric
- freshly grated nutmeg
- 2 cups Israeli couscous
- 4 cups homemade vegetable or chicken stock
- 1/2 cup diced, dried turkish figs
- 1/4 cup diced, dried apricots
- 1/4 cup diced preserved lemon
- 1/4 cup chopped, fresh parsley
- cayenne pepper
- Aqua salt blend or coarse sea salt
Brine Cornish Game Hens:
- In a cooler or large pot, dissolve 2 cups salt in 2 gallons of water. Rinse hens thoroughly inside and out, under cold running water. Submerge in brine. As needed, add additional water and salt to cover. Add 6 cups of ice and set aside for 2-3 hours in the refrigerator or on the patio if you’re lucky enough to be spending the winter somewhere cold.
Make couscous stuffing:
- While the hens brine, prepare the stuffing. Warm the oil over medium-low heat in a large sauté pan (use one that has a lid).
- Add the onions and sauté until softened and translucent, 5-8 minutes. Add the turmeric, cinnamon and a pinch of nutmeg, along with the dry couscous. Cook for five minutes until couscous is lightly toasted.
- Add stock and turn heat to medium high. Bring the stock to a boil, cover and reduce to low. Let cook for 10-15 minutes until the liquid has been absorbed.
- Transfer couscous to a microwave safe bowl. Stir in chopped fruit and parsley. Season to taste with a pinch of cayenne pepper, black pepper and Aqua salt blend or coarse sea salt.
Cook Cornish Game Hens:
- Remove hens from brine, rinse inside and out with cold water, and pat dry. Prick skin all over with the tip of a paring knife.
- Heat oven to 400 degrees.
- Whisk together balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Set aside.
- Microwave stuffing until very hot. Fill the cavity with stuffing and secure the skin flap with trussing skewers and tie together the legs. You can secure the wings to the body with more string, but that seems like a lot of work and doesn’t make a huge difference with so small a bird.
- Scatter onion, carrot, thyme and bay leaves in the bottom of a roasting pan. Place hens, breast side down and wings out, on top of a roasting rack set in the pan.
- Roast 1: Roast hens, for 25 minutes, on a rack set in the middle of the oven.
- Roast 2: Remove pan from oven, turn hens breast side up and legs out. Whisk vinegar and oil, and brush birds with the mix. Add two cups of stock to the bottom of the pan and return to the oven for 15 minutes.
- Roast 3: Remove hens from oven and baste again with oil and vinegar mix. Return to oven a final time and roast until both stuffing and thigh register 165 on an instant read thermometer. Remove hens from oven and place on a serving platter. Tent with foil and let rest for 10 minutes.
Make pan sauce:
- Meanwhile, place roasting pan on stove top and reduce pan juices to 3/4 cup. Strain juices into a small sauté pan and discard solids. Add white wine and any juices that have accumulated under the resting hens.
- Reduce liquid to 3/4 cups, remove from heat and whisk in the cold butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve alongside hens.
Where do 4-5 new recipes a week come from? It all starts by chatting with the farmers at Eastern Market as soon as I wrap up my Saturday demonstrations. Learning what will be fresh and bountiful the following weekend, I head home, my canvas bag filled with challenges. Some weeks that challenge is a brand new vegetable, or something that has just come into season. Others, it means trying to figure out summer’s fifteenth zucchini recipe.
After four days of pouring through cookbooks, conversations over dinner and internet research, my husband Jason, our friend Sam and I get together every Thursday night for #testkitchen. For five hours we test recipes finishing each one 3-4 different ways to see what flavors work best.
Last Thursday, uninspired by a basket full of apples, I reached out on my Facebook page. Apple butter and maple-mustard vinaigrette had me drooling, but when our friend Joe – a trained chef who can cook like nobody’s business – jumped on a recipe from Rhetta in Utah, we headed to the kitchen. Swapping guanciale for salt pork, and brightening rich, sweet Calvados with bright, complex sherry vinegar we had a winner.
Join #testkitchen every Thursday night starting around 7PM on Twitter and Facebook. We can always use your help!
Rhetta’s Cabbage with Apples
- 1 tbs olive oil
- 1/4 lb. guanciale or salt pork, diced
- 1 tbs mustard seed
- 1/2 medium onioin, diced
- 4 cups shredded cabbage
- 2 apples, cored and thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup calvados
- Sherry vinegar
- Optional: 2 tbs cream*
*The cream is mellow and rich, but it will cover the apple and cabbage flavors a bit. Either way is delicious!
- In a large skillet over medium heat, lightly brown guanciale, rendering the fat.
- Add mustard seeds and cook about 1 minute until they begin to pop.
- Add onion to pan and sauté until softened. If the guanciale has released less than 2tbs fat, make up the difference with olive oil.
- Add cabbage and cook 3-5 minutes, turning frequently with tongs, until slightly softened and edges begin to brown.
- Add apple and cook, again turning frequently, until cabbage and apples are soft, about 10 -12 min longer.
- Pour Calvados in to the hot pan and scrape up any brown bits.
- Season to taste with salt, pepper* and sherry vinegar. Add cream and cook 30 seconds until thickened if desired.
*Columbus, OH fans, I have a special treat for you. I made this for a dinner party Sunday and seasoned it with Whisky-brined Smoked Black Peppercorns from Spices Ltd. at North Market. Run don’t walk to pick some up and say hi to Ben while you are there (I’m sure he can tell you who at the Market has guanciale.
C’bus is short for Columbus, OH and this week it played host, along with my dear friend Ray, to a wonderful evening of good food and even better company. The experience started with a trip to Columbus’ North Market for groceries. Big shout out to Lan Viet for her generous gift of Thai basil and to Ben and co. at North Market Spices for beautiful ground cardamom – I can’t wait to stop back and stock up before my return to DC!
These ingredients, along with fresh, ripe summer fruit, were the inspiration for our dessert: peaches and blueberries, macerated in sugar and cardamom and topped with Thai basil-infused, hand-whipped cream. The spicy, licorice-y Thai basil was pleasantly herbal, but chopping it finely with sugar covered the grassy flavor. The warm, bright cardamom brought out the rich sweetness of the peaches and acidity of the blueberries achieving perfect balance.
It was a simple finish to a spectacular evening. Thank you C’bus. It is always a pleasure.
Peaches and Blueberries with Thai Basil Whipped Cream
Macerating means letting the fruit soften in its own juices. If your peaches don’t release a little juice on their own, add a squeeze of lemon juice.
- 3 peaches, sliced*
- 2 cups blueberries
- 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
- 1 tbs sugar
- 2 tbs roughly chopped Thai Basil
- 1-2 tbs sugar
- 2 cups heavy or whipping cream
*You can peel the peaches if you have a fuzzy texture issue, but that just seemed like a lot of work to me. You can slice as thin or thick as you like. Thin slices give each bite a better balance with the blueberries.
- Toss sliced peaches and blueberries together with cardamom and sugar. Let macerate in fridge for 30-45 minutes. If they don’t release any liquid after the first 15 minutes, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. How liquify this gets depends on how juicy your fruit is. Just go with it.
- Sprinkle the roughly chopped basil with the sugar and chop together until the basil is broken down almost as finely as the sugar.
- Whisk the cream to soft peaks. Then whisk in the basil sugar.
- Serve the fruit topped with a generous dollop of cream. And by “dollop” I mean “giant spoonful.”