This year for The Artist’s birthday, he asked me to make him game hens with compound butter. It is one of his favorites and we don’t have it very often making it a meal for a special occasion. This was a landmark birthday for him and instead of a huge party, he wanted a quiet dinner at home with a nice meal. I was happy to comply.
Cornish game hens originated in Cornwall, England. They are small birds that average about 2-1/2 pounds and are a delightful treat for weekend cooking or special occasions. Most of the time they are served overcooked and dry, but with a little care they can be absolutely succulent. The secret to luscious game hens (or any poultry) is a two-part process … a dry brining technique and using a compound butter, which work together to create an amazing entrée.
Judy Rogers, the chef/owner of Zuni Café in San Francisco, brought the dry brining technique to national attention. The restaurant is renown for its oven-roasted chicken served over bread salad. The idea is that if you salt the outside of poultry and leave it long enough in the refrigerator, the salt draws out some of the liquid and then reabsorbs it, drawing the flavor deep into the meat.
Compound butters are one of the tricks that professional chefs have used for centuries to enhance the meals they prepare. Everything is better with butter – but when you add herbs and seasonings, the flavors are elevated to something close to nirvana. The best part is that you can make them when you have a bunch of fresh herbs from the garden and freeze them to use all year long. If I don’t have any fresh herbs, I make mine with dried and the flavors are still great.
I have been making these birds for many years and they have witnessed some of the highlights of my life. They are a go-to for dinner parties, especially during the holidays. Maybe it is because of their size and the fact that you typically serve one bird per person, but they seem to be an indulgence and just right to create a festive mood. Add some steamed asparagus or green beans tossed with a little of the compound butter, rosemary roasted potatoes or a rice pilaf, and you’ve got a beautiful, delicious celebratory meal!
If you don’t want to hassle with a huge turkey for Thanksgiving and are only serving a few people, adding a lot of sage to the compound butter would make these the perfect substitute. Add some cranberry sauce and it is a fun and festive holiday meal!
The Artist had picked out a bottle of his favorite wine, a Cabernet Franc from Sinskey Vineyards. We settled down to enjoy his birthday dinner and toast to a bright and happy year ahead!
Have a fun weekend!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
Make the compound butter in advance and store in the refrigerator or freezer, tightly wrapped. You will be able to get the hens prepped and in the oven really quickly and then relax while they roast!
As long as the herbs and seasonings you use are gluten-free, this is a naturally GF meal.
Kitchen Skill: Cooking with Compound Butters
Compound butters are a cinch to make and they can turn a mundane meal into a celebration. Just combine your favorite herbs and seasonings in a bowl and blend them into softened butter. Form into a log or pack into a container. You can make it ahead and it stores beautifully in the freezer. Put a slice on grilled steaks, stir into steamed vegetables, add to a pan sauce, or use with poultry as shown in this recipe. Any way you use it, you will love the flavorful richness a compound butter adds to everything.
- 4 Cornish game hens
- 3 tbsp kosher salt (about 2 tsp per bird) for dry brine
- 3 lemons, 1 juiced, the remaining two cut in half lengthwise
- 1 onion, peeled, ends trimmed, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
- Kosher or sea salt
- 2 tsp onion powder
- 2 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tbsp dried thyme leaves
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
- 2 shallots, peeled and minced finely
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tbsp dried rosemary, chopped
- 2 tbsp dried thyme, chopped
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 4 large Russet potatoes, peeled and cut into medium chunks
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 to 2 tbsp fresh or dried rosemary leaves, chopped
- Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- The morning of the day before you plan to serve the birds, remove them from the sealed bags, rinse under cold running water and pat dry. Rub the outside of each bird with about 2 tsp of kosher salt, place in a roasting pan with low sides, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight. The salt seasons the meat all the way through instead of just sitting on the surface.
- The following day, remove birds from refrigerator and pat dry. Let the birds rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 450°F.
- Place the onion slices in the bottom of the roasting pan. They will raise the hens above the surface of the pan and add flavor to the pan juices.
- For each bird, sprinkle the cavity thoroughly with salt. Add the onion powder, garlic powder, and dry thyme leaves. Tuck a lemon half in each bird. Place them breast-side up on top of the onion slices. Tuck the wing tips behind the back. Sprinkle the tops with black pepper.
- In a small bowl, combine the butter, shallots, herbs, pepper, and a little of the lemon juice. Smash with a fork until the seasonings are evenly distributed through the butter. Taste and add more lemon juice if desired.
- Carefully separate the skin from the breast, running your fingers under the skin, breaking the connective tissues to create a pouch on each side of the breast. Spread 1 tbsp of herb butter under the skin on each side of the breast. Then working from the outside, press on the butter so that it coats the entire breast. The butter self-bastes the bird and helps keep it moist and tender. Repeat with remaining hens.
- Spread the potato chunks around the outside of the roasting pan, surrounding the hens. Drizzle the olive oil over them and then sprinkle with the rosemary, salt and pepper.
- Drizzle the birds with olive oil and pour remaining lemon juice over the tops. Place roasting pan in the hot oven.
- Roast at 450°F for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 350°F and continue roasting about 40 minutes longer or until juices run clear when the thickest part of the thigh is pierced and the leg moves easily when wiggled. An instant read thermometer inserted into the breast will register 160°F. The total roasting time is about 1 hour. Baste occasionally with pan juices during roasting. Remove from the oven and let stand 10 minutes before carving.
- Cut the hens in half lengthwise. Large eaters will enjoy a whole bird, while smaller eaters will be satisfied with a half hen. Divide the potatoes evenly between each serving plate and serve while hot.
- Yield: 4 to 8 servings
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