Christmas dinner

Cornish hens a grand, small-scale holiday roast


Main dish

Herb Roasted Cornish Game Hens with Creamy Mustard Sauce

Serving eight? Just double the recipe. The stock could be made a day or more ahead and reheated to make the sauce.

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh sage, plus extra to garnish

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh thyme leaves, plus 1 large sprig for the stock, and extra to garnish

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

4 (1 1/4-pound) Cornish game hens

1 pound chicken wings, separated at joints

1 cup coarsely chopped yellow onion

1/2 cup coarsely chopped carrot

2 garlic cloves, smashed

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1/2 cup red wine

1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/2 cup evaporated skim milk

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Freshly ground pepper

Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a small bowl, combine the sage, thyme leaves, lemon zest and salt.

Carefully separate the skin from the meat on the breast and thighs of each hen, lifting it lightly without removing it. Rub a quarter of the herb blend directly onto the breast and thigh meat (under the skin) of each hen. Cover and chill the hens. (Can be done up to 8 hours ahead.)

In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, arrange the chicken wings in a single layer. Roast on the oven’s middle rack for 15 minutes, then turn them and roast another 15 minutes, until golden. Add onion, carrot, garlic, tomato paste and the thyme sprig, and roast 15 minutes more, until vegetables are slightly caramelized. Turn off the oven.

Set the pan of wings and vegetables over medium heat on the stovetop. Add the wine and bring to a simmer, scraping the bottom to release the browned bits. Simmer until the wine is reduced by half. Add the chicken broth and enough cold water to cover the wings by 1 inch. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 2 hours, adding water as necessary to keep the wings covered.

Heat oven to 475 degrees.

Remove the hens from the refrigerator and use paper towels to pat them dry. Coat them lightly with olive oil spray and use cooking twine to tie the legs together. Arrange on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Roast in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes, or until a thermometer inserted at the leg thigh joint registers 165 degrees.

Transfer the hens to a platter, and let them rest, loosely covered with foil, for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, when the chicken stock has simmered for 2 hours, strain into a large bowl, discarding solids. Skim off and discard any fat on top. Wipe clean the pot and pour the stock back into it. Return it to the stovetop over high heat and boil until reduced to 1 cup, about 10 minutes.

In a small cup, whisk the cornstarch with the evaporated skim milk. While whisking constantly, add mixture to the simmering stock. Continue whisking until thickened, then whisk in the mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Add the juices from the resting hens to the sauce.

Transfer the hens to plates and pour some of the sauce over each one. Garnish with fresh thyme and sage. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 510 calories, 160 calories from fat (31 percent of total calories), 17 g fat (4.5 g saturated, 0 trans fats), 265 mg cholesterol, 14 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 63 g protein, 1,220 mg sodium.

My family has always insisted that the centerpiece of our Christmas feast be some kind of show-stopping roast. We’re talking a standing rib roast or whole beef tenderloin. And we tend to pair them with an extravagant sauce, usually béarnaise. Hey, it’s Christmas.

My challenge was to come up with a Christmas dinner showstopper just as glamorous as the usual stars, but somehow leaner. Cornish game hens fit the bill.

They were created in the 1950s by a French couple in Connecticut who wanted something that didn’t exist at the time – a succulent bird suitable for a single serving. They realized their dream by crossing a Cornish game chicken with a White Rock (or Plymouth) chicken.

Despite the name, there is nothing gamy about this bird. It tastes like what it is – moist and delicious chicken that is sized just right to serve one.

To make sure the white meat stays moist, I season the birds with salt. Then I stuffed some of everyone’s favorite poultry herbs – thyme and sage – under the skin.

The sauce is based on an ingredient I wish I always had on hand – brown poultry stock. It’s a happy cross between a chicken stock and a beef stock, with much deeper flavor than the former, but taking less time to make than the latter.

I base it on wings, which have the ideal ratio of bone (which provides gelatin) to meat and skin (both of which provide flavor). The wings get browned first, as do the vegetables, which is the key to deep flavor. I then simmer the ingredients for several hours, strain the stock, and boil.

How to make the sauce creamy without cream? By reaching for evaporated skim milk. Add a little Dijon mustard and you’ve masked any skim milk taste. I tested the recipe on the family, and as far as they were concerned, it was a full-fat, full-flavor French mustard sauce.

Sara Moulton is the host of public television’s Sara’s Weeknight Meals and author, most recently, of Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners.

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