Cornish game hens aren’t actually wild game at all (they’ve been domesticated for hundreds of years) but plump, young chickens (not even female, necessarily) who take their name from a cross-breed popularized in the 1950s. The diminutive birds are mostly succulent white meat, and their small size makes them ideal for stuffing.
“This is better than Thanksgiving!” declared the wide-eyed and (somewhat prone-to-hyperbole) husband, and for a small celebration, these game hens would indeed make an ideal alternative to the traditional turkey feast. Stuffed with a traditional cornbread dressing (sage, apples, onions and celery) and served up with roasted squash or a cozy parsnip soup, it’s a menu even novice cooks can handle gracefully, with considerably less time and effort than a big bird. Plus, no disagreements over who gets a leg or a breast or a thigh this year: each petite poussin is a single serving.
Cornish Game Hens with Cornbread Stuffing
adapted from Bon Appétit, 2008; serves four
for the stuffing:
- 3 Tbsp butter
- 1 C yellow onion, diced
- 1/2 C celery, diced
- 1 generous cup peeled apples, cored and diced
- 1 Tbsp fresh sage, finely chopped
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 4 C store-bought cornbread, diced into 1/2″ cubes (about 11 oz)
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1/2 C coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 2 oz)
- 3-4 Tbsp fresh apple cider or juice
for the game hens:
- four Cornish game hens (about 1 1/4- 1 1/2 lb each), rinsed and patted dry
- 1 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped
- kosher salt and pepper
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 4 slices of pancetta (or substitute bacon, halved crosswise)
- wooden skewer or toothpicks, kitchen twine and meat thermometer
Season the cavity and the exterior of the game hens generously with salt and pepper and let come to room temperature, about 45 minutes, while you prep the stuffing.
Over medium-high heat, melt the butter in a large skillet; add the celery and onions and sauté until relaxed, about 5 minutes. Add the apples and cook for 3 minutes. Add the sage, salt and pepper and transfer to a large bowl. Wipe down the sauté pan with a paper towel and set aside; let the veggies cool for about 10 minutes. Mix the cornbread into the vegetables. Gently toss with the egg; mix in the cheese. Add the cider by tablespoons to moisten the stuffing slightly; you’ll want it a bit damp but not soggy.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Pack one loose cup of stuffing into each game hen and skewer the cavity closed with a toothpick, wooden skewer or turkey lacers. Tie the legs together with kitchen twine. In the large skillet you used for the celery/onion/apple mixture, heat 2 Tbsp oil over medium-high until the oil is shimmery-hot. Brown the hens, turning occasionally with wooden spoons (or with your hands if you’re quick), about 10-12 minutes. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet or small roasting pan. Drape the pancetta on the breast; tie a piece of kitchen twine around the middle of the hen to secure the bacon and the wings. Sprinkle sage over top.
Roast the hens until the juices run clear when pierced, and the stuffing and thigh register 165 degrees on a meat thermometer, about 45 minutes.
Note: you can make the stuffing ahead (wait to add the egg until you’re ready to stuff), bringing to temperature with the hens. You can also cook the stuffing separate from the game hens; put in a buttered ceramic dish (or individual ramekins) for about 30 minutes at 400 degrees.