Northside SF
La Vita Delizioso
Small Birds For Small Gatherings

On my first Thanksgiving after moving to San Francisco, I threw a “black sheep” dinner party for friends and roommates who had families in faraway places and couldn’t make it home for the holiday. Because my family lived in the Silicon Valley, they came up to join us and help cook: my dad’s girlfriend, Kickie, made her fabulous stuffing and gravy while my dad was the king of the candied yams. We cooked three turkeys – two in my double oven and one in the oven of the tenants upstairs. It was a rollicking good time, with people wandering up and down the back stairs between the apartments, sipping wine, and filling their plates buffet style. The festivities were such a hit, in fact, we did it three more years. But on the fourth year my dad and Kickie decided to spend Thanksgiving in Tahoe, and the ever-revolving roommates and upstairs neighbors all had somewhere to go. It was just my boyfriend, the cats and me. Not wanting to cook a huge turkey for two people but still wanting that wonderful smell of roasting poultry and dressing wafting through the house on a crisp fall day, I decided to cook Rock Cornish game hens – small chickens that weigh about 2 to 2½ pounds each.

Rock Cornish game hens are not actually game birds at all, but rather young chickens (despite the “hen” moniker, they can also be male), a hybrid of the Cornish Game and White Rock breeds, known in France as poussin. People sometimes fear cooking them, but it’s no different than cooking a chicken or a turkey – you can roast them and stuff them, and they’re easier to manage due to their smaller size. They also make the perfect small birds for small gatherings, so if you’re having just a few people over this Thanksgiving, or if it’s just the two of you (and the cats), give Cornish hens a try. They make an elegant and impressive presentation when served whole, one per person.

Game hens are available year-round in the frozen section of most supermarkets (often sold in pairs) as well as at the Real Food Company on Polk Street, Mollie Stone’s, Bryan’s, and Marina Meats. I usually buy fresh organic hens, which you can find at Whole Foods or Andronico’s. The Fatted Calf in Hayes Valley also carries fresh game hens, but only for the holidays.

You can’t go wrong with a traditional preparation of stuffing, gravy and mashed potatoes, but if you want an easy, one-pot meal, throw some potatoes, carrots, onions, squash, or any other veggies you like into the pan and roast them along with the hens.

If you’re looking for something a bit more exotic, here’s my recipe for game hens with wild rice and mushroom stuffing and a side dish of caramelized Brussels sprouts. I love Brussels sprouts, but if you’re not a fan this recipe also works with carrots, squash or yams. This is a vegetarian side dish, but feel free to add bacon or pancetta to the pan first and, once it’s brown and crisp, toss in the sprouts.

Roasted Game Hens with Wild Rice and Mushroom Stuffing
Serves 4

8 cups chicken broth
2 cups wild rice, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup butter
4 shallots (or half a small white onion), minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried sage
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/4 cup white wine
2 cups mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt and freshly cracked
pepper to taste

In a large stockpot or Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid, add the broth and rice and bring to a boil. Stir once, cover pot, reduce heat to simmer, and cook until tender (about 40 minutes).

In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the shallots, garlic, sage, and rosemary and stir 3 to 5 minutes until shallots are tender. Add the wine and stir another minute or so. Add the mushrooms and Worcestershire sauce and stir until the mushrooms soften, approximately 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the cooked rice, season with salt and pepper, and set aside to cool. Note: If you have leftover stuffing, you can make “faux” risotto by putting the mixture back on the stove over medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes and adding freshly grated Parmesan cheese as you stir. This makes a fantastic snack or lunch the next day.

4 Cornish game hens
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
1 cup chicken broth

Rinse and dry the hens inside and out. Place on a large platter, breast side up, and set aside.

In a small mixing bowl, cream together the softened butter and fresh herbs. Use your fingers to carefully separate the skin from the breast meat. Rub the butter and herb mixture under the skin of each hen.

Fill the cavities with the wild rice and mushroom stuffing. Salt and pepper the hens liberally.

Using twine, truss each hen to keep the stuffing from falling out. Use foil to cover any exposed stuffing to prevent drying, as well as the wing tips to prevent burning.

Place the hens in a large roasting pan and add the broth. Roast in a 375-degree oven until the hens are golden brown, approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes – the legs should wiggle freely and the juices should run clear when the thigh is pierced with a knife. (To be certain the hens are cooked thoroughly, use an instant-read meat thermometer. When it registers 160 degrees, the hens are done.) Remove hens from oven and rest on a platter or cutting board.

1 tablespoon flour
4 tablespoons cold water
¼ cup white wine
Salt and freshly cracked
black pepper to taste

Stir flour and water in a small measuring cup until smooth. Place roasting pan over medium heat on stovetop and add wine, scraping up any brown bits. When the juices and wine start bubbling, gradually whisk in the flour and water, and stir until thickened to a sauce.

Season with salt and pepper, and pour into a gravy boat for serving.

Caramelized Brussels Sprouts
Serves 4

1 pound Brussels sprouts, all similar in size
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly cracked
black pepper to taste
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Cut the bottoms off the sprouts, peel off any tough outer leaves, and cut the sprouts in half. Place in the boiling water and cook until tender, about 4 to 5 minutes. Plunge sprouts into an ice bath to stop the cooking and retain the bright green color. Drain and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the sprouts and cook until golden brown, stirring occasionally. Add vinegar and stir with sprouts until the vinegar reduces to a syrupy consistency, about 3 minutes. Add salt and pepper, transfer to a serving bowl, and serve immediately.


March 2012
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