Hen party

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am

Cornish hens are small and plump, with a high proportion of white meat that can become dry if the birds are overcooked. Their mild taste makes them a good canvas for stronger flavours and these three recipes demonstrate their versatility.

Cornish hens with lemon-herb butter (pictured)

Smearing the herb butter underneath the skin of the Cornish hens bastes the breast meat and helps it stay moist. The butter can be flavoured with other ingredients; it's especially delicious with minced black truffle.

4 Cornish hens, about 500 grams each, thawed, if frozen

120 grams unsalted butter, slightly softened

2 tsp chopped fresh parsley

2 tsp chopped fresh chervil

6 leaves fresh tarragon, chopped

1 small garlic clove, finely minced

1/2 tsp finely grated lemon zest

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Remove the innards from the cavity of the hens. Rinse the birds inside and out with water then pat them dry with paper towels. Sprinkle each bird inside and out with one teaspoon of salt. Rub the salt into the bird to season it evenly. Mix the butter with the herbs, garlic, lemon zest, about a quarter of a teaspoon of salt and some black pepper. Refrigerate both the birds and the butter overnight. Let the butter mixture soften at room temperature for about 15 minutes before using it.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Gently slip your fingers under the skin over the breast. Loosen the skin but don't tear it. Smear 30 grams of the lemon-herb butter under the skin over the breast meat of each bird then smooth the skin back down and massage it gently to distribute the butter evenly. Leave the birds at room temperature for 30 minutes then place them breast-side up in a roasting pan large enough to hold them without touching each other. Place the pan in the oven and roast at 200 degrees for 10 minutes then reduce the heat to 180 degrees. Cook for 10 more minutes then turn the birds breast-side down and finish cooking (they'll take 30 to 45 minutes of total cooking time), basting the birds occasionally with the buttery juices from the pan. They're ready when you shake the leg of the bird and it moves loosely in the thigh joint. Remove them from the oven and let them rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Fried Cornish hens

2 Cornish hens, about 500 grams each, thawed, if frozen

100ml soy sauce

60ml rice wine

3 ginger slices, cut about 2mm thick, peeled and julienned

2 large garlic cloves, chopped

1/2 tsp five-spice powder

Cornstarch, for dredging

Cooking oil, for frying

Use poultry shears to cut along both sides of the backbone to remove it. Separate the legs and wings from the breast. Cut the breast into four pieces and separate the leg at the joint where the thigh meets the drumstick. Toss the pieces with the soy sauce, rice wine, ginger, garlic and five-spice powder. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight, mixing occasionally so the meat marinates evenly.

Drain the hen and make sure no garlic or ginger is clinging to the meat. Dredge the pieces thoroughly in cornstarch, shake off the excess and leave on a rack at room temperature while heating the oil. Pour oil into a skillet to the depth of about 2cm. Heat over a medium-high flame. When the oil is 180 degrees, fry the pieces in batches - do not crowd the pan - until they are medium brown (the breast portions will cook faster than the legs and thighs). Drain on paper towels.

Grilled or barbecued Cornish hens with yogurt marinade

The acidity in the yogurt tenderises the meat and makes it moist. This tastes best cooked on a coal barbecue.

2 Cornish hens, about 500 grams each, thawed, if frozen

200 grams yogurt

1 stalk lemongrass, juicy part only, crushed then finely chopped

2 shallots, minced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 x 1.5cm-piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced

1 birds-eye chilli, or to taste, finely minced

1/2 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp curry powder

20 grams honey

20ml fresh lemon juice

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Cooking oil, for greasing the grill

Use poultry shears to cut along both sides of the backbone to remove it. Open the bird at the backbone then put it bone-side down on a heavy cutting board. Press on it firmly to break the breastbone and flatten the hen. Use a sharp, heavy knife to cut down the breastbone, separating each hen into halves. Use a sharp paring knife to poke slits deep into the meaty parts of the bird (this allows the marinade to penetrate). Mix the yogurt with the lemongrass, shallots, garlic, ginger, chilli, cumin, curry powder, honey, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Taste the marinade - the flavours should be balanced; adjust the seasonings if necessary. Massage the marinade into the meat. Refrigerate for eight to 12 hours, mixing occasionally so the pieces marinate evenly.

If you are using a coal barbecue, give the coals sufficient time to heat. Lightly oil the grill and place it about 4cm above the coals. Allow the meat to reach room temperature and gently wipe the excess marinade from it. Barbecue the pieces, turning occasionally, until they're cooked and lightly charred in spots (20 to 30 minutes). The meat can also be grilled on a gas stove for about the same amount of time (for easy cleaning, line the grill pan with aluminium foil).

styling Vivian Herijanto