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Cornish hens prove it’s OK to be a little chicken

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Frank Costanza was right after all. “Seinfeld” fans will recall the 1996 episode when the crusty Costanza, played by Jerry Stiller, pointed to the bird on his plate and asked, “What is this thing anyway?” Told it’s a “Cornish game hen” by his son’s snooty prospective in-laws, he replied, “What is that? Like a little chicken?”

“It’s not a little chicken. Little chicken. Ha. Ha. It’s a game bird, Dad,” interjected his clearly mortified son, George, portrayed by Jason Alexander. As you might guess, the sitcom dinner went rapidly downhill from there.

Cornish hens prove it’s OK to be a little chicken photo
Bill Hogan

But a Cornish hen is a little chicken. The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently defines it as “a young immature chicken (usually 5 to 6 weeks of age), weighing not more than 2 pounds ready-to-cook weight, which was prepared from a Cornish chicken or the progeny of a Cornish chicken crossed with another breed of chicken.” Though called a hen, the bird can be male or female.

In 2011, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service lowered the age definition for a Cornish hen from 5 to 6 weeks to less than 5 weeks. This final rule takes effect in 2014, said Cathy Cochran, a USDA spokeswoman in Washington.

Alphonsine “Therese” Makowsky is credited with originally breeding the Cornish hen at a farm in Pomfret, Conn., that she owned with her husband, the artist Jacques Makowsky.

Her 2005 obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle — she was living in Danville, Calif., at the time of her death at age 92 — noted the couple had been raising and selling African guinea hens until a 1949 fire destroyed their stock. In response, the obit reported, she came up with the idea of “cross-breeding the Cornish game cocks with various chicken and game birds, including a White Plymouth Rock hen,” to create the Cornish hen. It quickly supplanted the couple’s African guinea hens in popularity, the Chronicle noted.

Cornish hens proved so chic that Victor Borge, the musical comedian, began breeding them at his home in Southbury, Conn., according to a 1958 story in The Hartford Courant. The writer of a 1960 New York Times article, “Food: Yankee hen is a hit abroad; Even a Frenchman finds Connecticut bird a treat,” marveled at how far the little birds had flown in just 11 years, from a Connecticut farm to being “served in elegant establishments around the world.” In the mid 1960s, Tyson Foods began selling Cornish hens.

The Springdale, Ark.-based poultry giant is the leading producer today, marketing an estimated two-thirds of Cornish hens produced in the United States, according to Brady Tackett, a company spokesman.

Cornish hens deliciously prove the adage: Good things do come in small packages. Savvy hosts can capitalize on that to easily create a special Christmas or New Year’s Eve dinner.

One, the diminutive hen is so distinctive in size that many people might mistake them for game birds instead of ordinary chickens. Two, they look so darn posh preening on the plate, guests will feel rather spoiled when you serve them.

“They’re an impressive kind of entertaining dish,” said Nathalie Dupree, the Charleston, S.C.-based cookbook author and television cooking show host. “They look a little uptown even though they are just chicken.”

Dupree is a big fan of the birds, also known as Rock Cornish game hens, Cornish chicken or Cornish game hens. They remind her of what chickens used to look like during her childhood before the age of supersized everything.

“I’d rather cook two Cornish hens than one humongous chicken,” she said.

Size matters also to Robb Walsh, author of “Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook.” The Houston writer developed a recipe using Cornish hens in place of German spring chickens because he misses having the variety of size options with poultry that French and German consumers enjoy.

“Cornish hens are a reminder of when we had a choice,” he said.

Being so small, the birds cook fast. Dupree says she throws a bird in the oven and gives it a quick glaze of marmalade or pepper jelly right before the finish. She doesn’t stuff the cavity, but she does like to put some seasoned ricotta cheese under the skin, a trick inspired by the late Richard Olney, a food writer, cook and editor.

A whole hen is too much of a serving for Dupree, but she doesn’t want to risk the embarrassment of skimpy portions for guests. Her solution?

“I roast an extra hen for every few people,” she writes in her latest book, “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking” (Gibbs Smith, $45), co-authored with Cynthia Graubart, “and then cut the extras in quarters, available for second (or third!) helpings.”

Cornish Hens Glazed with Honey and Wrapped in Bacon

4 Cornish hens

2 onions, coarsely chopped

2 Tbsp. honey

12 slices bacon or pancetta

6 leeks, trimmed, chopped into 2-inch pieces

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1/2 tsp. salt

Freshly ground pepper

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Stuff the hens with onions. Brush all over with honey; cover the breast of each with 3 slices bacon or pancetta. Settle into a roasting pan.

Toss the leeks with the oil; add to the pan, tucking them in around the birds. Season with the salt and pepper to taste. Roast, 45-60 minutes. If the bacon begins to blacken, cover hens with foil.

Remove the birds from the pan; keep warm. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the leeks to a serving dish; keep warm. Tilt the pan to one side; skim away any fat. Pour a little hot water into the roasting pan; set over high heat. Heat to a boil, scraping up any crispy bits from the bottom of the pan; simmer for a few minutes. Pour the pan sauce into a gravy boat or pitcher; serve with the hens and the leeks. Serves 6.

— From “Cooking Season by Season” (DK Publishing, $35).

Grilled Cornish Hens, German-style

If you can get to a grill and have a hankering for holiday cooking outdoors, try this recipe from “Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook.” (The Cornish hens can also be cooked in a grill pan or in the oven at 350 degrees.) Author Robb Walsh calls for a German riesling. Use if you have it, but a dry white wine will do. He also recommends serving this dish, based on a German recipe, with sweet-and-sour sauerkraut.

3 Cornish hens, split

1/2 tsp. each: salt, pepper

For glaze:

1/4 cup coarse-grain German mustard

2 Tbsp. German riesling

1 Tbsp. honey

1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper

Pinch ground mace

Pinch ground cloves

Prepare a charcoal or gas grill for indirect-heat grilling over medium heat. Meanwhile, carefully remove as much skin as possible from the hens. Season hens with salt and pepper.

Combine the glaze ingredients in a bowl; mix thoroughly.

Cook the hen halves, bone side down, directly over the fire until lightly browned. Move them to the cooler part of the grill grate; cover. Cook, turning at midpoint, 20-25 minutes. Prick a thigh with a fork to check for doneness. If the juices run clear, move the hen halves back over the fire; brush them on both sides with the glaze. Finish them, turning often, until nicely browned on both sides. Serves 6.

— From from “Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press, $25)

Roasted Cornish Game Hens

4 to 6 Tbsp. oil

1 cup fresh lemon juice

3 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary

4 to 6 Rock Cornish game hens (1 to 2 pounds each), split

¼ cup breadcrumbs

16 oz. ricotta cheese

1/4 cup grated lemon zest, no white attached

8 cloves garlic, chopped

3/4 tsp. salt

Freshly ground pepper

3 to 5 cups chicken stock or broth

Mix the oil, lemon juice and half the rosemary. Place the hens in a shallow dish, skin side down; pour the mixture over. Marinate, refrigerated, overnight.

Toss together the breadcrumbs, ricotta, lemon rind, remaining rosemary and garlic. Season with ½ teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Remove hens from marinade, reserving marinade. Gently slide fingers under the skin of each hen to release the skin from the surface. Spread the mixture evenly underneath the skins. Season the hen’s surface with remaining ¼ teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Move the hens to a rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with some of the lemon marinade; refrigerate, uncovered, to dry the skin, 1 hour.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Distribute the hens skin side up, without overlapping, in a baking pan. Roast, 1 hour. Turn birds as needed to brown all over. The hens are cooked when the thickest part of the meat registers 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from pan; degrease the juices.

To make a sauce, add the stock to the pan. Heat to a boil, stirring the sides and bottom of the pan. Boil until reduced to ½ cup per bird, about 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Moisten the birds; pass the remaining sauce. Serves 6.

— From “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking” (Gibbs Smith, $45) by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart

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