I am planning barbequed Cornish game hens for this Sunday, Mother’s Day. The question remained how should I season the birds? The whole world does chicken, so how do I narrow the field to make a choice?
Earlier this week I made some raspberry crackers. This led Jan to thinking about: What other unexpected things you could you add to crackers? Her answer was the spice blend za’atar. She asked me to make these crackers for Sunday’s dinner.
This choice of starches simplifies the decision on the hens. I need a Middle Eastern chicken to go with the crackers. When Jan went to Whole Spice in Napa, she bought me several spice blends. One was the Arabic blend Baharat. While variations of the blend appear throughout the Middle East, the blend Whole Spice produces seems close to that used in the Mashriq, the countries of the Fertile Crescent.
Between a recent article in Cook’s Illustrated and the various recipes I glanced at on-line, my mind took a bit of a left turn. I decided to marinate the chicken overnight with bharat and sliced onions. I would then barbecue the hens and grill the onions separately. For my presentation, I would lay the finished birds over the bed of grilled onions.
One problem with Cornish games hens is that they cook too quickly for the skin to crisp properly. Your choice is a well cooked bird with flabby skin or an over cooked bird with crisp skin. The Cook’s Illustrated solution was to sear the skin before finishing the bird off in the oven. I would take this idea further by moving the hens to a smoky grill and cooking the onions in the remaining fond left by searing the game hen skins.
I am planning on grilling four hens. I will be using a two level grill with the coals along the back of the barbecue. The normal way of cooking the hens would be to spatchcock, cut them along the backbone, and flatten them. This would produce a very crowded grill and very uneven cooking.
The breast and legs would also cook at different rates. My only solution would be to cut the birds into quarters and lay the eight leg portions closer to the heat than the breast portions. Using this method all of the pieces should cook evenly and be done at the same time.
After Dinner Note: Everyone agreed that this is one of the best meals I have produced. The tastes and textures were well balanced and worked well together. This was a Mother’s Day feast to be remembered.
While the hens were very tasty, four game hens turned out to be a bit of overkill. The five of us each ate (more than) our fill and there was enough left over for everyone to have a second meal. This is a problem? What can I say it was a two for one sale at Lucky’s.
This searing/barbecuing technique worked perfectly, the skins were crisp and the meat was moist and tender. The seasoning and wood smoke also made a delicious combination. The grilled onions were particularly popular. Next time, I will make fewer birds and more onions.
Karl’s Alder Wood Smoked Middle Eastern Game Hens
4 Cornish game hens
4 Tbs. olive oil, separate uses
2 tsp. sea salt, separate uses
½ tsp. baking soda
5 Tbs. baharat spice blend, separate uses
2 tsp. black pepper, separate uses
2 large onions
Alder wood chips
2-3 sprigs parsley (optional)
1. Rinse and pat the hens dry.
2. Remove the backbone and cut the birds into quarters—two breast and two leg portions.
Tip: Use kitchen shears to cut along each side of the backbones and save them for soup stock.
3. Pull the skin away from the breast, but do not pull it off. Prick the skin several times, but not the meat.
4. Mix one teaspoon of salt and the baking soda into two tablespoons of olive oil. Rub the mixture over the hen pieces.
5. Dust the hen pieces liberally with four tablespoons of baharat and one teaspoon pepper.
6. Slice the onions, pole to pole, into quarter inch crescents.
7. Sprinkle the remaining barahat, pepper and salt over the onions and toss with the remaining olive oil.
8. Gently toss together the hen portions and onions. Place them in a plastic bag and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
9. Half an hour before continuing, start your coals and prepare your alder wood chips.
10. Separate the hen pieces from the onions. Pull the skin back over the over the breasts.
Tip: You may need to pin the skin in place with toothpicks.
11. Blot the skins with a paper towel and let the hen pieces air dry for half an hour.
Tip: Do not wipe off the spices, just remove the excess moisture.
12. Heat a heavy griddle, or cast iron skillet, over a high heat and lightly oil it.
13. Sear the skin sides of each hen portion for about 3 minutes each.
Tip: You will probably need to do this in batches. Lay the breast portions skin side down on the griddle. Sear the leg portions on both sides. You are not trying to cook the pieces this is to just start crisping the skin.
14. Spread the coals along the back edge of the grill and add the alder wood chips.
Note: Jan bought me a set of wood smoking chips from The Smoke Stack Company. It came with a small canister that you fill with wood chips and set near the coals.
15. Lay the breast portions in a row along the front of the grill, with their thickest parts pointed toward the coals.
16. Lay the leg portions in a row with the thighs toward the coals.
17. Insert a constant read thermometer into the thickest breast portion and close the grill lid.
18. While the hens are cooking, reheat the griddles and cook the onions, until they are starting to pick up some color.
Tip: Drain the excess liquid from the onions, but do not rinse them. The liquid has a lot of chicken juices it in and it will clot when it hits the grill and look unattractive. Do not clean the grill of the chicken fond before grilling the onions.
19. When the thermometer reads 160° F, about 30-40 minutes, open the lid and check the temperature of the thickest part of the thighs.
Tip: If necessary remove and tent the breast portions and let the leg portions cook, covered, for another five minutes. The thighs are done at 170° F.
20. Spread the grilled onions over the serving platter and arrange the hen portions over them. Tent the hens with foil to keep them warm.
Tip: If you used them, remember to remove the toothpicks before serving.
21. Garnish with sprigs of parsley and serve.