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April 30, 2007

Steal Your Mother’s Hen? Then Cook It Right!


Like most people, you might find yourself rifling through your mother’s freezer and come across a small, curious looking package. It is small, vaguely chicken-like in appearance, and might have scrawled across it the words Rock Cornish Game Hen.


If you are wearing a jacket especially equipped with inner-pockets, the kind one might be expected to wear while committing petty larceny from his mother, slip this inside and take it home for experimentation. It is a Rock Cornish game hen.


You could be forgiven if you looked at one and assumed that it was beyond your level of sophistication. Its shape and size remind us of our good friend the pigeon, and its handy one-bird per meal size suggests that a special kind of bird has been bred just to land on your dinner plate. If this isn’t luxury, you can paint me red and call me late for dinner, because I don’t know what is.


Unwrapped, it looks every bit like a small hen, and there is a tendency for the new initiate to the Cornish game hen to assume that perhaps they’ve eaten some magic beans or been hit with some kind of new enlarging ray, and that they are suddenly looking down at a regularly sized chicken. In fact, the temptation is there – small though it is – to believe oneself to have been turned into an ogre or perhaps a small giant, go outside, grab a stout tree trunk and begin laying waste to neighboring farms.


Instead, steel yourself and attend to your little chicken.


The first step, whenever dealing with a raw chicken, is to rinse it in cold water and pat it dry. (It is not to draw a face on the hen’s back with permanent black marker, stick your hand into the body cavity and conduct a puppet show in an open street-side window.) Cut a clove of garlic lengthwise and rub the skin of the hen with the garlic clove. The skin will momentarily glisten with garlic-y goodness. Into the cavity, sprinkle some dried tarragon, which is a clue of things to come.


Now that the chicken itself is largely ready to cook, place it in an oven-ready pan and set it aside. If it feels lonely, tell it that its time to bask in the gentle glow of celebrity’s spotlight will soon come. (Try not to rub hands together, or lick lips, since this might surrender too many clues.) Turn your attention now to a basting sauce.


Start simple, with a hunk of butter. Melt it down gently. Too much heat will scorch the butter, causing it to turn brown. Add some white cooking wine and a healthy dash of dried tarragon. Mix them together, and set aside for a few moments so the flavors can better blend.


The oven is probably now preheated (if it isn’t, fast forward until it is), and it’s time to introduce your Rock Cornish game hen to the oven. You say, “Hen, meet oven. Oven, meet hen. You two get to know each other while I go watch a rerun of Monk.” And, if you’ve done just this, you’d be close to being right. It will take a little longer than an hour for your typical game hen to cook. Oh yes, cook it uncovered in the oven.


Because you are cooking the thing uncovered, you will want to mitigate the risks of drying the thing out. Brush it regularly with your tarragon baste, perhaps every 10 or 15 minutes ago.


Towards the end, slice up some shiitake mushrooms, for these will be your main accompaniment. Cover the bottom of a skillet with a very thin layer of your baste (there should be plenty left over), and sauté the mushrooms until they are soft all the way through (watch the stems, ornery little fellows who don’t always like to soften upon someone else’s orders).


There are two ways to check the doneness of your game hen. Either poke it with a thermometer and wait until it reads 165 degrees (the juices will also run clear), or twist one of the small drumsticks. When the drum twists and pulls off easily … this also speaks volumes (as much about your table manners, if you are serving this to guests).


Once cooked, remove and place on plate next to mushrooms. It has a sophisticated appearance that can be completed with a little risotto. Just ignore the reek of shame, given to it by your petty crime against your mother.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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