Ah the illusions of youth!
Rock Cornish Game Hens were such a fancy thing to eat when I was little. They were so cute and golden when they came out of the oven; a half a bird each for me and my brother, and one each for our parents, basted in a peach sauce that was lovely and sweet. (Keep reading for Puerto Rican, Greek and Mesquite marinades!)
These little birds, almost invariably sold frozen into hand-held cannonballs, seemed to me to be an exotic species (don’t laugh, those of you from Cornwall) and having been an eager reader of all things Annie Oakley and Laura Ingalls Wilder, and other tough girl survivor books in the days before Katniss Everdeen and I imagined that these little birds were hunted by young folks with charming accents, roaming the plains of Cornwall (do you even have plains in Cornwall?) in home-made clothes, with rifles or intriguing traps or somesuch.
As it turns out, Cornish Game Hens do actually trace part of their heritage back to a Cornish hen, so I will cling determinedly to the exotic part of my fantasy.
The Rock bit, does not, as I thought when I was younger, refer to the rock-hard frozen state in which they were sold, but to the other lineage that makes them: the rock hen. The rest, however, is nonsense. There is nothing gamey about these birds and they don’t even necessarily have to be hens!
They are very young domestic birds (five weeks) that are fed abundantly (but not force fed) so they quickly plump up to a market-size of 1.5-2 lbs. They may be male or female.
But never mind the disillusion; I got over it as soon as we had them on the grill for Christmas dinner (regular readers will know that my dad will grill anything). We did different marinades for each of the three birds and they were all very good (I confess to preferring the Greek yogurt one).
IMPORTANT NOTE TO SINGLETONS and single parents with little kids: If you crave roast chicken, but don’t have anyone else large or interested to eat it with, one Rock Cornish Game Hen is your answer. It will fit in the toaster oven and is just the right size for one big eater or a parent and child or a single dinner and then cold chicken lunch the next day. More on that soon.
Grilled Cornish Game Hens With Three Different Marinades (Southwest, Criollo, and Greek)
(factor in a day or two of defrosting in the fridge, and 3-8 hours of marinating time)
Each of these marinades will season one Cornish Game Hens or small chicken (1.5-2 lbs)
The birds must be patted dry and split, but it is up to you whether you want the skin on or off. The skin burns rather quickly, so be attentive! I will give you the three marinades first, followed by cooking instructions, which are the same for all.
Gallinita Criolla (Puerto Rican style seasoning)
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp oregano
½ tsp salt
2 tsp olive oil
In a mortar and pestle, grind all the ingredients except the olive into a paste. Add the olive oil, combine, and season the split bird inside and out, getting under the skin if you are leaving the skin on. Place in Ziploc bag or other sealable refrigerator-safe container for 3-8 hours.
Mesquite Marinade (uses a commercial powder as the base)
2 Tbs McCormick Grill Mates Mesquite Marinade (or similar)
2 Tbs olive oil
1/8 Cup water
Mix all ingredients in a sealable refrigerator safe container. Add hen and season all over, including under the skin. Refrigerate for 3-8 hours
Greek Yogurt Marinade
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp dry oregano or 2 tsp fresh
½ tsp salt
½ Cup yogurt (non-fat is fine; nonfat Greek is really good)
2 tsp lemon or lime juice
1 Tbs honey
In a mortar and pestle grind the garlic, peppercorns, oregano and salt into a paste. In a bowl or cup, add paste to yogurt, juice and honey and mix well. Use the yogurt mix to thoroughly coat the bird, including under the skin. Place in a sealable refrigerator-safe container for 3-8 hours.
Heat grill to 400°F (you may grease the grill with a bit of cooking spray or brush with oil before heating). Lay bird(s) on grill, lower heat to about 350°F (if you can control your grill; otherwise you have to wing it (pun very much intended!) and cover. The idea is that they cook slowly enough to retain tenderness and moisture, but still cook through in 45 minutes or so. Cooking times will really vary depending on your grill. Use a meat thermometer; it should read 165°F when it/they are done.
Do not split the bird, but leave whole. Bake in a 375°F oven for about an hour, basting after 30 minutes. Use a meat thermometer; it should read 165°F when it/they are done.