My food and cooking obsession means that I read a lot of recipes and an embarrassing number of food blogs. Recently I read a post on Griffin’s Grub about Cornish game hens that put these wee chickens back on my radar. The next day, I happened to see some on sale at the grocery store and threw them in my cart and then my freezer. There they sat, waiting for me to become further inspired. Luckily, Adam over at The Unorthodox Epicure included some tips on using buttermilk to tenderize poultry and the hens went into the fridge to defrost. The recipe below is a mishmash of various sources — a little Nigella Lawson here, a smidge of Smitten Kitchen there, and a dose of Big Green Egg tips thrown into the mix. The end result is something you can serve with pride as a unique spin on the traditional Thanksgiving main or just a Sunday supper.
Let’s talk about the hens. My husband likes to say that I will buy any food that is miniature just because I think it is so darn cute. I do not deny it. Cornish game hens are pretty adorable in their tiny turkey-ness. But I also like the fact that you get a good ratio of crispy skin to juicy meat (both dark and white.) I have cooked them a couple of times for Thanksgiving and they are always a hit. Here’s what they usually look like in the store:
Don’t be fooled by their petite size — these suckers take a bit of time to defrost in the fridge. Mine took about 36 hours to fully defrost. Of course, you can always put them in cold water to speed things up. Once my little chickies were frost-free, I started whipping up my buttermilk brine.
Buttermilk Brine (for 2 hens)
adapted from Smitten Kitchen
2 cups buttermilk
5 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 1/4 tablespoons Morton’s kosher salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika, plus extra for sprinkling (I used smoked paprika)
Whisk buttermilk with garlic, table salt, sugar, and paprika in a bowl. Place game hens in a gallon-sized freezer bag and pour buttermilk brine over them. Refrigerate for at least 2 but preferably 24 and up to 48 hours. (I only had four hours to spare so that’s what mine got.)
While my hens finished marinating, I started up my Big Green Egg. Slightly soaked applewood chips went on my blazing coals and then I put my plate setter in legs up for indirect heat, with a drip pan on top. Once I had a dome temperature of 350 degrees F, I was ready to cook. I removed my hens from the brine, drained them a bit, and then stuffed them with some fresh sage leaves and orange wedges like so:
I sprinkled them with sea salt and more smoked paprika and then they went out to the smoker and onto the grate.
My total cook time was 1.5 hours: I put the lid down and left them alone for 30 minutes. Then I came back, flipped them over, and basted them with some olive oil to crisp up the skin. Another 30 minutes and they were looking good.
They got one final flip and some more olive oil. After 30 minutes, they were ready to pull off and rest for a bit. I was pretty pleased with the browning and they sure smelled heavenly.
We sliced one in half, removed the aromatics inside, and plated them up with some yummy Thanksgiving-inspired sides. (Posts on these later in the week.)
I have mentioned before that I am not a big chicken fan but, man, these things were tasty. After trying to be polite and use our utensils, the hubby and I finally just started pulling the meat from the bones with our hands. The skin was crispy and flavorful and the meat was juicy good. Give ’em a try — they’ll do you proud.
What if I don’t have a Big Green Egg? No worries — all you need to do is roast the hens in your oven at 375 degrees for an hour. You’ll probably want to pat them dry a bit more and generously coat them with olive oil before you pop them in to cook.