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Cornish hen: A small scale, grand Christmas roast

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, as if these prizes were not already rich enough in themselves, we tend to pair them with an extravagant sauce, usually bearnaise. Hey, it’s Christmas.
My challenge for this column was to come up with a Christmas dinner showstopper just as glamorous as the usual stars, but somehow leaner. It couldn’t be pork because my parents don’t love pork. It might’ve been turkey, but we just featured it at Thanksgiving. And roast chicken – much as I love it – just seemed too prosaic for a once-a-year holiday feast.
Then it occurred to me that Cornish game hens might fit the bill. You can say that they’re small, or at least small-ish, but I prefer to think about them as individual. They were created during the `50s, after all, 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. On the contrary, it tastes like what it is – really moist and delicious chicken that is sized just right to serve one per customer.
To make sure the white meat stays moist, I pre-seasoned the birds with some salt. Then I flavored the little guys by stuffing some of everyone’s favorite poultry herbs – thyme and sage – under the skin. They’re plenty delicious as is, straight out of the oven, so don’t fret if you don’t have time to make the sauce.
Then again, it is Christmas dinner, so you might want to budget the time to do it up right. This particular sauce is based on an ingredient I wish I always had on hand – a brown poultry stock. It’s a happy cross between a chicken stock and a beef stock, boasting a much deeper flavor than the former, but taking less time to make than the latter.
You can make a regular chicken stock from any part of the chicken. Typically, the necks and backs are recruited, but I prefer to base mine on the wings, which boast 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.
Still, how to make the sauce creamy without cream? By reaching for evaporated skim milk, which is low in fat but thick in texture. Add a little Dijon mustard and you’ve masked any persistent skim milk taste.
I tested this recipe on The Husband and our kids, and none of them could even tell that it was low-fat. As far as they knew, it was a full-fat, full-flavor French mustard sauce.
As you digest this marvel, you may settle into a pleased and meditative mood. Think then of Charles Dickens, who prescribed the following mental exercise for the conclusion of Christmas dinner: “Reflect upon your present blessings – of which every man has many – not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some. Fill your glass again, with a merry face and contented heart. Our life on it, but your Christmas shall be merry, and your new year a happy one!”
Start to finish: 3 hours 20 minutes (30 minutes active)
Servings: 4

C. finely chopped fresh sage, plus extra to garnish
C. finely chopped fresh thyme leaves, plus 1 large sprig for the stock, and extra to garnish
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. lemon zest
1- tsp. salt
Four 1- lb. Cornish game hens
1 lb. chicken wings, separated into joints
1 C. coarsely chopped yellow onion
C. coarsely chopped carrot
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
C. red wine
1- C. low-sodium chicken broth
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
C. evaporated skim milk
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
Ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 400 F.
In a small bowl, combine the sage, thyme leaves, lemon zest and salt.
Very carefully separate the skin from the meat on the breast and thighs of each hen, lifting it lightly from the meat 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. This step can be done up to 8 hours ahead.
Meanwhile, in a large saucepan or Dutch oven arrange the chicken wings in a single layer. Roast the wings on the oven’s middle rack for 15 minutes, then turn them and roast for another 15 minutes, or until they are golden. Add the onion, carrot, garlic, tomato paste and the thyme sprig, then roast for another 15 minutes, or until the 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 and simmer for 2 hours, adding water as necessary to keep the wings covered.
After the liquid has simmered for 1- hours, heat the oven to 475 F.

Remove the hens from the refrigerator and use paper towels to pat them dry. Coat them lightly with olive oil cooking spray, then use cooking twine to tie the legs together. Arrange the hens on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Roast them in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes, or until a thermometer inserted at the leg thigh joint registers 165 F.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 the mixture into a large bowl, discarding the solids. Skim off and discard any fat on top of the stock. Wipe clean the pot used to make the stock, then 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 together the cornstarch and the evaporated skim milk. While whisking constantly, add the cornstarch 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.

Nutrition information per serving: 510 calories; 160 calories from fat (31 percent of total calories); 17 g fat (4.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 265 mg cholesterol; 14 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 6 g sugar; 63 g protein; 1220 mg sodium.

Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years.

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