In my – ahem- younger years, one of my favorite dishes, was my mother, Loretta’s, Stuffed Rock Cornish Game Hens. She made hers in different ways, sometimes using rice , sometimes bread. Often, the preparation was influenced by my father, Attilio’s, special game dishes. He would try to slip something of his own in the stuffing when she wasn’t looking. It was usually some sort of dried fruit that he always used with his game birds, and of course a good slug of wine would get in there— somehow.
Rock Cornish Game Hens aren’t really “game” at all. They are domestically raised and a cross between Cornish and Plymouth Rock chickens. They are small – bigger than quail – but smaller than pheasant. A hen fits neatly in the palm of one hand. One hen provides a hefty meal for a hearty appetite, but more often will be plenty for 2 people. They are different from chicken in that they are extremely tender, delicately flavored, and juicy – even the white meat. Although they are not considered “game”, they are probably the nearest domestic bird to the wild and most often treated as such in their preparation, using many of the same sauces, cooking styles, and ingredients such as fruit, wine, brandy, sausage, and wild mushrooms.
First – to Italia! Italians are known for being avid hunters. They hunt pigeon, pheasant (fagiano), quail, ducks, geese, doves, venison, hare, and the infamous wild boar (Cinghiale) of Tuscany. Italians eat all kinds of birds – even peacock! In Renaissance times, the nobility in the Northern regions set up their own personal hunting reserves on their land complete with lodges. With only the upper classes given the privilege of hunting there, the peasants were left to catching the occasional “stray”. Aside from their celebrated wild boar dishes and sauces, the Tuscans are also noted for their recipes for guinea hens and hare.
It’s in the cooking: It is common for these Italian hunters to be excellent cooks, in particular, as it pertains to game. My father was one who spared nothing when it came to preparing his “birds”. He made his own sausage for the stuffing, used all kinds of dried and fresh fruits, and prepared his sauces also from the fruits accompanied by different types of brandy and, of course, his favorite Valpolicella wine. He used pork fat of differing types to give the wild and lean birds more flavor and moisture.
Today, I will give the Stuffed Rock Cornish Game Hens & Cranberry Sauce the “game treatment” and dress them for a special holiday table. In keeping with family tradition, you will recognize some of the ingredients used by Attilio for his game birds. You will love these!
STUFFED ROCK CORNISH GAME HENS & CRANBERRY SAUCE
2 Rock Cornish Game Hens ( available at any grocer)
2 Tbsp. Olive Oil
1/4 lb. Pancetta – chopped + 4 slices Pancetta for top of hens
1 Medium Onion – shopped
1 Stalk Celery – chopped
2 Tbsp Fresh Parsley – chopped
1 Tbsp. Fresh Sage – chopped
1 Tbsp. Fresh Oregano – chopped
2 Tsp. Fresh Rosemary – chopped
1/2 c. Dried Apricots – chopped
1/2 c. Dried Cranberries
3 c. Italian Bread – broken into pieces – crusts removed – place in large bowl
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Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Rinse hens and pat dry. Salt & pepper inside and outside of hens. Place in baking dish.
Cook chopped pancetta in oil until crisp – remove pancetta and set aside.
In same pan, sauté onion, celery & herbs until tender.
Add apricots & cranberries, salt and pepper and cook stirring about 3 minutes.
Add the ingredients from the pan to the bread pieces. Combine and add crisp pancetta pieces.
Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.
Add egg and mix well.
Stuff hens with as much as you can get in each cavity. Pack them well. This is just about exactly the amount needed for 2 hens.
Stick pieces of butter between the legs and body and between the wings and body. Place pancetta slices on top of hens – 2 for each.
Place hens in the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 350 degrees. Roast for about one hour and 20 minutes. The cooking time may vary with different ovens. This is only a guideline. Check your birds to make sure.
When finished, remove slices of pancetta from tops of hens . If you need more browning at the end of the cook time – increase oven to 400, and put the hens back in the oven to finish. If needed, leave them until they are at the desired browning or for about 15 more min. The amount of time will depend on how brown they are, how brown you like them, and your oven.
Remove from oven and –IMPORTANT: let them sit for 20 minutes before cutting so they will re-absorb their own juices. Slice each hen down the middle to serve one half per person.
Makes: About 1 1/2 cups – enough for 2 hens.
Prep: 10 minutes
Cook: 20-25 min.
3 Tbsp. butter
1 Medium onion – chopped
1 Tbsp. Fresh Basil – chopped
1 Tbsp. Fresh Thyme – chopped
1/4 tsp. Ground Cloves
1/2 Tsp. Ground Cinnamon
2 Tsp. grated Orange Zest
1/2 c. Red Wine + 1 Tbsp Red wine for mixing cornstarch
1 c. chicken broth
1 1/2 c. Fresh Cranberries
3 Tbsp. Sugar
2 Tsp. Balsamic Vinegar
1 Large Spring Fresh Rosemary
Cook onion in butter until tender.
Add basil, thyme, spices, orange zest.
Mix together and add wine – cook down a 3-4 minutes.
Add chicken broth – Cook about 8 minutes
Add cranberries, sugar, and vinegar. Cook about 10 minutes. Watch the cranberries burst and bubble!
Add Salt and pepper to taste.
Remove from heat.
Dissolve 1 tsp. cornstarch in the 1 Tbsp. Red Wine and add to the sauce. Stir in – it should thicken immediately. If sauce needs reheating before you use it – do not let it boil as it will thin. Just heat on low.
Serve over or under your hens – whatever your preference.
To Serve: I love this dish! It easily makes a romantic dinner for two. At the same time, it is a stunning holiday or dinner party dish. It almost screams “Build me a fire!” Soft candlelight wouldn’t hurt either. You need very little else with this one – perhaps a simple green vegetable. For the vino, I like a Valpolicella or a Barbera with this both in the sauce and for drinking.
For that one perfect evening, put these Stuffed Cornish Game Hens & Cranberry Sauce on your table and you’ll own ‘em!
PARLA COME MANGI!
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Food Photos By Tommy Hanks Photography