I'M NOT SURE how Frank Perdue got wind of my special (and only) meal. You've seen it on TV recently. Frank comes in from work with his trench coat collar up, sticks a pan of his fresh ("not frozen like a rock") cornish game hens into the oven, puts champagne Post Haste on ice and heads for the shower. In the next scene, wearing a tuxedo, he checks a pot of steaming wild rice and greets his young guests with a series of cheek-to-cheek kisses. Take away the champagne, the black tie and the three chicks (at the door, I mean) and there's my one and only company-come-to-dinner dish.
A friend in New York first tipped me off to the idea when those double-packed little birds first started showing up in the fresh--not frozen--meat section of the supermarket. I've always liked cornish game hens. But what do you do at 6:30 p.m. with two little mounds of frozen poultry that you (of course) didn't remember to take out of the freezer that morning? Even my mother's trick of soaking chicken in warm water can't make hens fit to cook in anything under three hours. The option of a quick stop at the market after work for all the ingredients takes a lot of the bother out of having guests to dinner.
What appeals to me most about this meal is that with very little trouble you can make a good, quick and impressive meal. It is the impressive part that really interests me. Forget the fact that all you do is stick some birds in the oven for an hour and wait for them to cook. For anyone who doesn't cook--and in fact hates it--trying to impress someone with a meal can be at best ambitious, at worst disastrous. I won't go into my nightlong battle with Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon that almost summoned the fire department for a taste test. But what could look better than a perfect little hen surrounded by wild rice (the real stuff, which I found out isn't that hard to fix) and a nice green vegetable or separate salad? And perhaps the best part, everything can be done just before the guest (or guests) arrives, with a good hour to have a drink and enjoy the soothing smell of roasting birds.
I recently received a clay Romertopf pot as a housewarming gift and have started using it to cook the hens in. It keeps the meat especially moist and tender, but I've also made just as good a meal using a regular roasting pan. Here's my basic recipe and preparation schedule, which can be altered or added to easily.
CORNISH GAME HENS (2 servings) 2 cornish game hens Salt and pepper Wild rice for two 2 shallots Dark mustard (dijon is a good choice) Chopped parsley Sherry or white wine (optional)
Remove plastic pack of innards from cavity and wash the birds. (Not being a cook, I don't save innards for anything.) Instructions tell you to salt the cavity, but you may want to skip this. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees (if using clay pot) or 350 (for roasting pan). Start the wild rice, following package instructions. Peel two shallots and put one in each cavity. Smear dark mustard on the outside of each bird, sprinkle chopped parsley on top and sprinkle with salt and pepper. You may want to add a little sherry or white wine to the pan, but it's not necessary. Cooking time for both the clay pot and roasting pan is about 1 hour. If using a clay pot, remove the top about l5 minutes before finished to brown the birds. Whatever vegetable you choose can most likely be prepared just before serving.
Now fix a drink, welcome your guest and prepare to impress. But if you're like me, you almost hope he won't be too overwhelmed with your culinary skill. The problem with a one-meal repertoire is the comeback. I've got to come up with a second meal soon.