December 19, 2012
Frank Costanza was right after all. "Seinfeld" fans will recall the 1996 episode when the crusty Costanza, played by Jerry Stiller, pointed to the bird on his plate and asked, "What is this thing anyway?" Told it's a "Cornish game hen" by his son's snooty prospective in-laws, he replied, "What is that? Like a little chicken?"
"It's not a little chicken. Little chicken. Ha. Ha. It's a game bird, dad," interjected his clearly mortified son, George, portrayed by Jason Alexander. As you might guess, the sitcom dinner went rapidly downhill from there.
But a Cornish hen is a little chicken. The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently defines it as "a young immature chicken (usually 5 to 6 weeks of age), weighing not more than 2 pounds ready-to-cook weight, which was prepared from a Cornish chicken or the progeny of a Cornish chicken crossed with another breed of chicken." Though called a hen, the bird can be male or female.
In 2011, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service lowered the age definition for a Cornish hen from 5 to 6 weeks to less than 5 weeks. This final rule takes effect in 2014, said Cathy Cochran, a USDA spokeswoman in Washington.
Alphonsine "Therese" Makowsky is credited with originally breeding the Cornish hen at a farm in Pomfret, Conn., that she owned with her husband, the artist Jacques Makowsky.
Her 2005 obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle — she was living in Danville, Calif., at the time of her death at age 92 — noted the couple had been raising and selling African guinea hens until a 1949 fire destroyed their stock. In response, the obit reported, she came up with the idea of "cross-breeding the Cornish game cocks with various chicken and game birds, including a White Plymouth Rock hen," to create the Cornish hen. It quickly supplanted the couple's African guinea hens in popularity, the Chronicle noted.
Cornish hens proved so chic that Victor Borge, the musical comedian, began breeding them at his home in Southbury, Conn., according to a 1958 story in The Hartford Courant. The writer of a 1960 New York Times article, "Food: Yankee hen is a hit abroad; even a Frenchman finds Connecticut bird a treat," marveled at how far the little birds had flown in just 11 years, from a Connecticut farm to being "served in elegant establishments around the world." In the mid 1960s, Tyson Foods began selling Cornish hens.
The Springdale, Ark.-based poultry giant is the leading producer today, marketing an estimated two-thirds of Cornish hens produced in the United States, according to Brady Tackett, a company spokesman.
Roasted Cornish game hens
Prep: 45 minutes
Chill: 1 hour
Cook: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Note: A recipe from "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking" (Gibbs Smith, $45) by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart. "Loosening the hen's skin and pushing the stuffing under it … aids in crisping the skin and intensifying the taste of the hen,'' the authors write.
4 to 6 tablespoons oil
1 cup fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
4 to 6 Rock Cornish game hens (1 to 2 pounds each), split
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
16 ounces ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated lemon zest, no white attached
8 cloves garlic, chopped
3/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
3 to 5 cups chicken stock or broth
1. Mix the oil, lemon juice and half the rosemary. Place the hens in a shallow dish, skin side down; pour the mixture over. Marinate, refrigerated, overnight.
2. Toss together the breadcrumbs, ricotta, lemon rind, remaining rosemary and garlic. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Remove hens from marinade, reserving marinade. Gently slide fingers under the skin of each hen to release the skin from the surface. Spread the mixture evenly underneath the skins. Season the hen's surface with remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Move the hens to a rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with some of the lemon marinade; refrigerate, uncovered, to dry the skin, 1 hour.
3. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Distribute the hens skin side up, without overlapping, in a baking pan. Roast, 1 hour. Turn birds as needed to brown all over. The hens are cooked when the thickest part of the meat registers 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from pan; degrease the juices.
4. To make a sauce, add the stock to the pan. Heat to a boil, stirring the sides and bottom of the pan. Boil until reduced to 1/2 cup per bird, about 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Moisten the birds; pass the remaining sauce.
Per serving: 543 calories, 37 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 225 mg cholesterol, 8 g carbohydrates, 42 g protein, 536 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.