There’s something fun about eating Cornish Game Hens, at least to me. I’m not exactly sure what it is. It’s like you are eating some delicate, sophisticated food and yet, really, the best way to attack it is to just pick it up and eat it with your hands. Manners be damned! Yeah, sure, manners suggest you eat it with a knife and fork, but come on! Have you tried that? Luckily, it was just Mrs. G and me, so I grabbed a leg, ripped it off and dove in. Sorry, Mom if you are reading this, I know ya taught me better.
So what is a Cornish Game Hen? Contrary to the name, it is not a game bird at all. It is a type of domesticated chicken. And even though it is called a “hen”, it is not necessarily a female. It can be male or female. The USDA describes the Cornish Game Hen as “a young immature chicken (less than five weeks of age), weighing not more than two 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.” That’s as in depth as I’m going to take you.
I’m not real sure why I don’t get these more often. After putting some thought into it, I realized I had never cooked one for Mrs. G, nor had I ever prepared one on the Big Green Egg (which I’ve had almost 2 years now). I’ve cooked them on my old offset smoker, though. I guess the reason I don’t get them more, is that they are often located in the frozen aisles of the grocery store. I don’t do most of my meat shopping there. Not to mention, they are frozen so I don’t have time to thaw them out after work and cook them that night. For some reason, I spotted them a few weeks back and grabbed them, figuring I would get around to cooking them someday.
Cornish Game Hens (from here on out will be called CGHs) are often cooked whole with some type of stuffing inside, usually involving some type of fruit. I just wasn’t feeling that last night. I wanted to keep it simple and my brain said treat it like a chicken. One of the best ways to grill a whole chicken is to spatchcock it, which we’ve gone over HERE before. Take a pair of poultry shears or a sharp knife, locate the backbone of the CGH and cut along it from bottom to top on both sides. Next, flip the CGH over and push down on the breast to flatten it. You will often hear a pop as the keel bone snaps.
If you have time, at this point I like to place the CGHs into the refrigerator uncovered to allow the skin to air dry. This will help result in a crispy skin. I only had about two hours for this process and if that is all you have, go for it, but longer would be better. It would be ideal if you could do this first thing in the morning before heading off to work, but some time is better than none.
Going along with my theme of keeping it simple, I decided to keep the seasonings light in order to allow the flavor of the CGHs to really shine through. Digging through my spice rack, I found this Montreal Chicken Grinder that had been pushed to the back and had gone into hiding. The ingredient lists garlic, sea salt, onions, black pepper, parsley, red pepper, orange peel, red and green bell peppers and paprika. Quick grind and a taste…yeah, that’ll work. Simple, light and will really allow the CGHs flavor to shine.
I set up my Big Green Egg at 350 F using a raised grate. (If using a charcoal or gas grill, set up your grill for an indirect cook as the juices from the CGHs will result in flare ups causing them to burn. In an oven, set it to 350 and bake them on the middle rack). Not wanting to over power the CGHs, I went with apple wood as it produces a light smoke. I believe cherry or any other fruit wood would work as well.
I checked on the CGHs after about 30 minutes. Normally, Eggs run pretty consistent, but for some reason, mine seemed to be running a bit hotter in the back than in the front so I rotated the grid 180 degrees. If you are cooking on a gas or charcoal grill and using the indirect method, I would suggest you do the same at this point.
After 50 minutes, I did a quick temp check of the CGHs. 160F in the breast and the thighs reading around 170-175 and I knew we were done. I pulled the CGHs, brought them inside and loosely tented them with aluminum foil to allow them to rest while we prepped the rest of the meal.
We plated up the CGHS with some broccoli and some spaghetti tossed with a fresh pesto that my brother and his girlfriend made from their basil plants. Even though CGHs are often served one per person, Mrs. G and I decided that half of one would be fine for us so we took the poultry sheers (which had been washed by this point) and cut through the keel bone. The CGHs had a slighty stronger, richer flavor than your average chicken. They were more tender and juicy as well. In fact, the juice was running down my hands and chin as I was eating them. Quite a messy meal, but oh so worth it. I think going with a lightly flavored seasoning and a light wood for smoke really allowed the flavor of the hens to shine through.
Would I choose CGHS over chicken in the future? Not all the time, but I think they are going to go into the rotation more. They are a bit more expensive, but they are great for special occasions. There’s just something cool and fun about serving a whole bird to one person. A certain “Wow” factor. And there is no reason to choose just one part.You get the breast meat and the legs and the thighs and the wings. You get it all. I’m already thinking about how I’m going to prepare them next time. Maybe leave them whole? Fill them with a wild rice, mushroom and sausage stuffing? What do you think? What’s your favorite way to prepare Cornish Game Hens?
I’ll leave you with one final thought. Next time, I’m going to bump the temperature up to 400F. Not that 350F didn’t work, but I believe that the higher temp will result in a crispier skin as well as cooking the bird faster while not sacrificing quality.