Our dinner guest could not resist the pun. Helping himself to the last little chicken on the platter, he observed, "He who hesitates is perdu " ("lost," in French). He ignored our groans and turned his attention to the crispy-brown breast of the rock cornish game hen now on his plate.

Chicken has long been a staple of American cuisine, so it's no surprise that cooks -- and dinner guests -- are taking notice of "chicken little," the rock cornish game hen. These plump little birds are a fine example of good things coming in small packages. They are the products of English-American cooperation: The relatively slow-growing game hen of Cornwall, England, is crossed with the larger, faster-growing American Plymouth Rock rooster. With careful breeding, poultry geneticists have produced plump, broad-breasted, tender little chickens that are ready for processing at 5 to 6 weeks.

Game hens weigh about 22 ounces, and one bird per serving is customary. The fact that these little chickens are most often prepared whole makes their presentation at table attractive. In fact, they're appropriate at the most elegant dinner. They can be broiled, fried, roasted, braised, sauteed, baked, barbecued or cooked on a rotisserie.

Chicken is a highly digestible meat: It is shorter-fibered than most meats and is not interspersed with fat (the fat is in layers directly beneath the skin and around the intestines). The meat is appreciably low in cholesterol and calories. (Those on reducing diets avoid eating the skin.)

The same general rules that apply to buying any chickens also apply to buying game hens. Choose birds that look and smell fresh, and are free of bruises, blemishes or tears in the skin. (Skin can be white or yellow, depending on the breed -- either color is fine.) The skin should be thin, moist and tender. There should be no misshapen or broken bones. When buying game hens, select birds with plump, well-rounded breasts. Fresh birds should be refrigerated no longer than 3 days. If birds are to be frozen, freezer temperature must be 0 degrees or less. According to one of the largest chicken processors, cooked cornish game hens may be kept frozen for up to five months, and uncooked for up to 12 months. Forzen birds should be thawed in the refrigerator (allow about eight hours).

Cornish game hens are versatile: Inventive cooks will adapt their favorite chicken recipes for these smaller birds, and will seek new ways to prepare and serve them. In addition to their succulence and adaptability, they're also inexpensive. WILD RICE-STUFFED CORNISH HENS WITH SAUCE MADERE (4 to 6 servings) 4 ready-to-cook rock cornish hens (1 to 1 1/2 pounds) Salt and ground black pepper 3 tablespoons cooking oil 1/2 cup (1 medium) chopped onions 1/2 cup finely chopped celery 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1 cup raw wild rice, cooked according to package directions 2 raw egg yolks Sauce madere (recipe below)

Wash Rock Cornish hens and dry them thoroughly. Sprinkle them inside and out with salt and black pepper.

In a 2-quart saucepan, heat oil. Add onion and celery and cook, stirring frequently, until onions have browned lightly, 3 to 4 minutes. Add salt, black pepper, nutmeg, wild rice, and egg yolks. Mix lightly, but well. Taste and adjust seasoning. Spoon the stuffing loosely into the body and neck cavities of the hens. Close cavity openings with skewers and tie legs to the tails with twine.

Place hens on a rack in a shallow roasting pan.Roast at 350 degrees, uncovered, 40 to 60 minutes, basting frequently with Sauce Madere.

Arrange hens on a large warmed platter. Serve 1 small hen to each person or split larger hens in lengthwise halves and serve 1/2 hen to each person. Serve with Sauce Madere. SAUCE MADERE

Blend 4 to 6 tablespoons madeira with 2 cups good-quality brown gravy. Heat and use for basting the hens while they are roasting. Serve the remaining sauce in a sauceboat to spoon over the hens at the table. CORNISH HENS WITH ORANGES (6 to 12 servings) 6 ready-to-cook rock cornish hens (1 to 1 1/2 pounds each) 2 teaspoons salt 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 1 clove garlic, crushed 1 stick butter, melted 1/2 cup orange juice and 1/2 cup dry white wine, or 1 cup orange juice 2 cups Cointreau-Orange Sauce (recipe follows) Orange slices, cut 1/2 inch thick Parsley

Wash and dry cornish hens and rub the skin with salt, white pepper, lemon juice and garlic. Pin neck skins to the back with skewers and tie legs to the tails with twine.

Place hens on a rack in a large shallow roasting pan. Spoon melted butter over them. Place hens in the oven and roast 15 minutes at 350 degrees. Then pour orange juice, or orange juice and wine, over them. Continue roasting until tender, about 45 minutes, basting 3 to 4 times with the orange juice or orange juice and wine.

Remove hens to a warmed platter and spoon Cointreau-Orange Sauce over them. Serve the remaining sauce in a sauceboat. Garnish platter with orange slices and parsley. COINTREAU-ORANGE SAUCE Roasting pan drippings Orange juice 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons flour 2 tablespoons Cointreau Salt and ground black pepper to taste 2 unpeeled navel oranges, sliced 1/2 inch thick

Pour roasting pan juices into a 2-cup measure and add enough orange juice to make 2 cups liquid. In a 1-quart saucepan, melt butter. Remove saucepan from the heat and stir in flour. Stir and cook until the mixture is smooth and bubbly. Stir in orange juice and pan-dripping mixture. Stir and cook until the sauce is hot. Add Cointreau and orange slices. Simmer 5 minutes. Add salt and black pepper to taste. Serve over roasted cornish hens. ROCK CORNISH GAME HENS DALLAS STYLE (Serves 4) 4 rock cornish hens Butter and salt 1 carrot 1 teaspoon finely minced onion 1 cup chicken stock 1 jigger sherry 1 teaspoon cornstarch

Rub the hens inside and out with butter and salt; place in shallow baking pans small enough so that the hens will touch each other; slice the carrot, add the onion, and place in the pan; roast uncovered at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, basting several times during the baking with the chicken stock and drippings. When done, remove from pan to a heated serving dish. Simmer remaining stock in the pan until reduced to 1/2 cup, and strain. Add the sherry, mixed with cornstarch, and cook, stirring, until clear.Pour over the hens. (Roasting time: about 45 minutes.)

Elegant touches: Add whole mushrooms, sauteed in butter and a little sherry, and sliced truffles or black olives to the sauce. Serve with wild rice. Serve them with their opening filled with crisp watercress and spiced kumquats split and placed over their drumsticks. HERB-BAKED CORNISH HENS (4 servings) 4 rock cornish game hens Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted 4 tablespoons lemon juice 3 teaspoons rosemary (or favorite herb) Lemon slices, parsley

Sprinkle birds with salt and pepper.Place in baking pan. Combine melted butter, lemon juice and herb. Baste birds liberally with this sauce. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes.

Place birds on warm serving dish. Garnish with lemon slices and parsley. CURRIED CORNISH GAME HENS (Serves 2) 2 rock cornish game hens, quartered 2 tablespoons cornstach 2 tablespoons oil 1/2 cup scallions, cut into 2-inch pieces 1 medium green pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces 1 clove garlic, minced 1 teaspoon curry powder 1 cup chicken broth 1 medium banana, sliced

Quarter hens, discarding backbones. Toss hens in cornstarch to coat. In skillet, brown hens in oil. When all sides are brown, add scallions, green pepper, garlic and curry powder.Saute several minutes, stirring frequently. Add chicken broth, cover, and simmer 20 to 30 minutes or until hens are tender. Add banana; cook five minutes longer. Serve with hot rice and chutney. (Toasted coconut, chopped peanuts, chopped scallions, chopped bananas are suitable garnishes.)