Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sweet-Glazed Cornish Game Hens and Roasted Vegetables

Today one of my co-workers was snacking on a big plate of strawberries, and I could smell their sweet-tartness as I walked past her desk. As I looked down at her plate of half-eaten strawberries, sliced thinly and starting to leek juices and color the dish a light pink, I noted how good they smelled. She replied, “Yeah, but they’re really sour.”

That got me thinking about the impending spring season and all the wonderful produce that’s about to come in season. For the last few months we’ve had to subsist on vegetables from hothouses or shipped in from the other side of the globe, and I CAN’T WAIT for the first wave of farmers’ markets to hit the scene with all their juicy, colorful and inspiring offerings. Those mushy, overly sour strawberries will morph into tiny flavor bombs I will be more than happy to stain my fingers pink over.

I was thinking about this especially when we did a tasting for our friends who are getting married this summer. Jackie and I were trying to be mindful of what would be in season, readily available and totally delicious by then, and we decided to go with two of our favorites – asparagus and tomatoes. Now, anyone who reads this blog (and let’s be honest, there are millions of you) will know that we’re absolute tomato-philes, so it should come as no surprise they’d show up again. The only problem is right now tomatoes are . . . well . . . dull. Kind of watery, lacking in texture and severely lacking that bright, acidic burst they have in the summer and beginning of fall. And the same goes for asparagus – tender, grassy, and bright-green turns to wooden, flat and gray in the winter months.

With all that in mind, why would we choose these two misfits when they’re not nearly up to their potential right now? Because they point to how good they’re going to be. In a few months when asparagus and tomatoes are in season, our friends and their wedding guests will be thrilled at the mixture of the roasted vegetables, the burst of concentrated acidic sweetness from the tomato and pleasantly tender asparagus. And that’s something we can all look forward to.

And let’s not forget the main event of this dish: the sweet-glazed Cornish game hens. Have you ever had one of those “Of Course!” revelations where you are doing something you think is complicated, only to find out there’s a much easier way if just stopped and thought about it? Happens to me all the time, and it happened when we were trying to split these hens in two. We were trying to cut through the backbone with a chef’s knife, and there was no way that was working out. So we tried going the other way through the breast bone, and that just tore the skin we were going to crisp up and glaze. Then one of us said, “Why don’t we use shears?” After a moment of blank stares between two college graduates, we tried the obvious and more effective solution, which took about 2 minutes to prep 3 birds.

To contrast with the bright crunch of the vegetables and the sweet, digit-smackin’ awesomeness (“finger-lickin’ good” is trademarked) of the hens, we made our stand-by of sautéed mushroom risotto. We also saved the backbones of the hens to make stock out with, along with the duck breastbones from this dinner, recipes for both of which will be forthcoming.

Molasses-Glazed Cornish Game Hens

3 Cornish game hens (half for each person)
1 cup molasses
½ bottle dry red wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon
2 tbl balsamic vinegar
2 sprigs each thyme and sage
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat your oven to 350°.

Using kitchen shears, cut down each side of the hens’ backbones to remove them (Freeze them for stock. Recipe is forthcoming.), then turn them over and cut them down the center through the breastbone. Pat them dry and season them with salt and pepper inside and out.

Put the molasses, wine, vinegar and herbs in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Reduce until thick and syrupy, coating the back of a spoon. Season to taste.

Place the hens on sheet trays skin side up, drizzle with olive oil on both sides and roast for 30 minutes (or when an instant-read thermometer reads 180° in the thigh), basting with the glaze every 10 minutes. Serve immediately with tasty roasted vegetables and mushroom risotto (recipe’s coming, really).

Roasted Asparagus and Cherry Tomatoes

1 bunch asparagus, washed, ends trimmed
½ quart cherry tomatoes, washed

Okay, seriously? There’s no need for a recipe for this dish; it’s that easy. Thinly peel the asparagus starting just under the tip, put in a casserole with the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil, roast in the oven next to the hens for 10 minutes, or until the tomato skins start to split. Done and done.

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