I love cornish game hens because they’re so sweet and small. They cook quickly. And with very little effort, they transform into a ridiculously impressive-looking main course.
For as delicate as they may be, this is stick-to-your-ribs winter food.
The little hens stay moist and succulent from an overnight soak in a sweet and brine-y mix of salt, apple cider, garlic, peppercorns, and bay leaves. They develop a complex sweet and sour flavor by roasting under a jammy blanket of richly caramelized apples, onions, and bacon.
Serve with buttery, garlic mashed potatoes or a creamy risotto. Balance it out with a simple romaine salad dressed in lemon juice, good olive oil, and a few fresh Parmesan shavings.
Cider Cooked Cornish Game Hens with Apple and Bacon
For the overnight marinade
2 cornish game hens
2 cups apple cider
2 Tbls. kosher salt
a dozen or so whole peppercorns
3 mashed cloves of garlic
3 bay leaves
For the day you cook the hens
3 slices of bacon
1/4 cup water
kosher salt to taste
1 small onion, diced
1 apple, peeled and diced
1 clove garlic, mashed
1 cup apple cider
freshly cracked black pepper
1 tsp. sugar
Marinate the birds the night before you want to cook them
Unwrap the hens and put them in a gallon-size zip-top bag.
Pour 2 cups of cider into the bag.
Toss in the salt, peppercorns, garlic, and bay leaves.
Seal the bag up well and smoosh it around to thoroughly mix up the cider and spices. Set it in the fridge overnight.
The night you want to cook the birds
Set a large oven-proof sauteuse on the stove. The pan I use is about 12 inches in diameter with sides that are about 2 inches high. It’s great because it can go from the stovetop right into the oven.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
Start with the bacon
The only bacon I had in the house was frozen, which worked just fine. I hacked off a few inches. This is about the equivalent of maybe 3 rashers. The bacon measurement can be imprecise. It’s there for flavor and fat, so a little more or less shouldn’t really affect your finished dish.
Dice it up. (Because my bacon was frozen, I sliced it into strips across the grain, so that when it thawed in the pan it would break up into little pieces.)
Put the bacon in the pan on the stove over medium-high heat. Add a quarter cup of water. Stir to combine. The water will help render off some of the bacon fat without burning it.
Stir the bacon around to start to cook it and evaporate the water.
Your goal is to get the bacon brown and crisp, like this:
Prepare the birds
While your bacon is frying, take your birds out of the fridge.
In the sink, remove them from the bag, shake off any cider, and pat them dry with paper towels. Toss the marinade. (You’ll be adding fresh cider in a little bit.)
Sprinkle the birds with a little kosher salt.
Brown the birds
When your bacon is crisp, scoot it to the outskirts of the pan. You want most of the bottom to be free. Add both the cornish hens to the pan, breast-side down.
Cook on medium-high heat until the breast-sides are nicely browned.
Flip them over and brown the backs.
When the backs are browned, transfer the birds from the pan to a large plate. Set them aside for the moment while you make the sauce. (For a more elegant presentation, you could truss them up at this point.)
Finish the sauce up
Once you’ve removed the birds from the pan, toss in the chopped apple, onion, and garlic.
Stir to coat with bacon fat. Saute the apple and onion for a few minutes, until they start to get soft.
As they cook, they’ll let off some juice. Scrape at the bottom of your pan to deglaze it and loosen any brown bits.
Turn the heat down to low. Wait a minute or two for the pan to cool slightly. Pour in the apple cider. (Watch out for the steam.) Add the teaspoon of sugar and freshly cracked black pepper to taste.
Stir to combine. Turn the heat back up to medium-high. Finish scraping the bottom of the pan clean with a wooden spoon.
Bring the contents of your pan up to a simmer and cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally.
Reduce the cider by about half, or until it’s kind of syrup-y and coats the bottom of the pan thickly (without sticking), like this:
Add the birds back to the pan and roast
Add the birds back in to the pot, breast side up.
Scoop the sauce up with a spoon and pile it on top of the hens. Spread it around so it’s pretty even. When they’re ready to go into the oven, they should look about like this.
Put the pan into the oven and roast the hens for about 30 minutes.
When are they done?
They’re done when the tops are nice and brown and the juices run clear. When you wiggle one of the drumsticks, it should be nice and loose. They should look about like this:
Plate them up and serve!