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Eric Akis: Small Cornish game hen big on flavour

Many cooks, including me, have long thought that Rock Cornish game hens were something to serve on a special occasion. And we can thank the late American chicken baron Donald John Tyson for instilling that notion.

Many cooks, including me, have long thought that Rock Cornish game hens were something to serve on a special occasion. And we can thank the late American chicken baron Donald John Tyson for instilling that notion.

Lore suggests farmer Alphonsine (Terese) Makowsky first bred this type of fowl in Connecticut in 1950. The story goes that she was crossbreeding the short-legged, plump-breasted Cornish chicken with other varieties, including the White Plymouth Rock chicken, with the desire of developing a smaller bird with adequate meat.

She had success and the resulting chicken, although not game at all, was called a Rock Cornish game hen. Like some game birds, though, it was small in size, and you could serve one per person, which made it look impressive on a dinner plate.

Not long after, Donald John Tyson’s company, Tyson Foods, also began raising Rock Cornish game hens. His goal was to create an upscale specialty poultry item that would appeal to gourmands, and his plan worked. They soon began to appear on restaurant menus and eventually made there way into food stores where home cooks could buy them.

Thanks to Tyson pitching Rock Cornish game hens as being upscale — they were, and still are — the bird was prepared in more fanciful ways than, say, a frying chicken. And, conveniently, the bird’s succulent, subtly sweet meat worked well with all sorts of flavourings.

Rock Cornish game hens, now often simply called Rock Cornish hens, Cornish game hens, or Cornish hens, average in weight from about 500 grams to one kilogram. Birds in the 500 to 600 gram range would be a suitable size if you were planning to serve one per person.

However, these days, hens those sizes are not always that easy to find in sufficient, feed-a-crowd, numbers. That’s why my preference is to buy larger ones, in the 750-gram range, and split the birds in two, creating half-hen servings. It’s always the perfect amount, especially when you serve the bird, as one always does, with side dishes and have an appetizer and/or dessert. Halving the hens is also easy to do (see the step-by-step guide).

In today’s recipe, I marinated the half pieces of hen in an olive oil/lemon juice mixture flavoured with two types of paprika, honey, garlic and sage. It’s a Hungarian/European-style way of deeply flavouring the hens I’ve done in the past.

After they were marinated, the hen halves were roasted until richly hued, heavenly aromatic, juicy and oh so very tasty. For even more richness, once plated, you have the option of drizzling the hen with warm sour cream.

I served the hens with a refreshing cucumber salad, some miniature potatoes and, although not seen in the recipe photo, some other vegetables, including locally grown snap-top carrots.

And yes, I did serve the Rock Cornish game hen for a special occasion. My dear sister-in-law Cindy was visiting from Ontario for the first time since the pandemic hit and it was one of many celebratory meals my wife and I shared with her.

Split Roasted Rock Cornish Game Hens with Paprika, Honey and Lemon

Half pieces of Rock Cornish game hen marinated and roasted until richly coloured, juicy and very flavourful. This recipe could be halved if you are only serving two, or be further expanded if you are feeding a larger group.

Preparation time: 30 minutes, plus marinating time

Cooking time: 50 minutes

Makes: four servings

2 Cornish hens (each about 750 grams)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 Tbsp lemon juice

2 tsp finely grated lemon zest

2 tsp honey

1 tsp regular (sweet) paprika

1 tsp smoked paprika

1/8 tsp ground cayenne pepper

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 tsp dried sage leaves (see Note 1)

• sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/2 cup sour cream, warmed (optional; see Note 2)

1 to 2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley

With kitchen shears or a knife, cut along either side of each hen’s backbone and remove. Save the backbones for stock. Now cut each hen in half down the middle of the breastbone.

Place the olive oil, lemon juice and zest, honey, regular and smoked paprika, cayenne, garlic and sage in 13- x 9-inch or similar sized dish and mix to combine. Add the hen halves and turn to coat. Cover, refrigerate and marinate the hens for at least four hours, or for as long as overnight, turning occasionally.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Set the hens, skin-side-up, in a shallow roasting pan and season with salt and pepper. Brush the hens with the marinade left in the dish. Roast the hens 30 minutes. Baste the hens with pan juices, and then roast 20 minutes more, or until cooked through.

Plate the hens and drizzle with some of the pan juices. Now drizzle each hen with some of the warm sour cream, if using, sprinkle with parsley, and serve.

Note 1: Dried sage leaves are dried, finely crumbled sage leaves sold in jars in the herb/spice aisle of supermarkets. Don’t confuse it with powdery ground sage.

Note 2: You can warm the sour cream until fluid by putting it in a bowl and zapping it in the microwave 30 seconds or so.

Sweet and Sour Cucumber Salad

Here’s a crisp and refreshing salad to serve with the hens. Use a mandolin or hand-held slicer to thinly slice the cucumber and onion.

Preparation time: 15 minutes, plus soaking and refrigerator time

Cooking time: None

Makes: four servings

1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced

3 Tbsp rice vinegar or cider vinegar

2 tsp water, plus some for the onions

1 1/2 tsp granulated sugar

1/2 medium English cucumber, thinly sliced

• salt and ground white pepper, to taste

Place onions in a bowl, cover with ice-cold water and let stand 10 minutes (this process will mellow the taste of the onion). Now drain the onions well.

Combine the vinegar, 2 tsp water and sugar in a medium bowl. Add the cucumber and onion, season with salt and pepper, and toss to combine. Cover salad and let flavours meld in the refrigerator 20 minutes. Toss again and serve.

Eric’s options: If desired, you could add a chopped fresh herb, to taste, to this salad, such as dill, tarragon or parsley.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.