Some folks have the idea that a game bird is just like chicken. This is a dangerous misconception. Get that straight quick. The chicken is a preening pampered prissy little lay-about, primping and prancing around the farmyard, or maybe just stuffing its face in some closed in wire cage. Wild fowl are another story. The game bird is an ornery, scrawny, bad-tempered cuss of a critter whose life is dedicated to thwarting your intent. Their natural taste can be described most affectionately as ‘gamey’, which seems obvious when you say it out loud.
All that meanness makes for rough eats without a mess of effort to make it otherwise. Whether it’s quail or pheasant or grouse, these birds are lean, fighting trim, and that’s a hardship for any cook. But don’t let that stop you. Any cook can make a fine meal of these birds with a little gumption and gusto.
Fat is flavor, the truest words in all of culinary history. So the first thing to figure is how to soak the spindly little creature with some flavor. There’s a few ways to go about this, butter, lard, even olive oil can offer a rich glowing texture and sumptuous complexity to the taste. Here’s my favorite strategy.
½ stick butter
6 oz. honey (clover is preferred)
2 Cornish game hens
3 oz. black truffles (preferably fresh, but do what you can)
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp. rosemary
2 tsp. salt
3 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. coriander
2 yellow onions
1 cup sourdough croutons
2 stalks celery
Firstly, butter up the game hens. Just grab that stick of butter and rub it all over, paying special attention to the breast and drumsticks on top, since that’s where the heat will be focused.
Second, make up the stuffing. Stay wary on account of the truffles, for those things have a powerful taste if let loose. Chop finely the celery, garlic, and onions. Mix into a bowl with the croutons, salt, pepper and coriander. For the carrot, you’re going to want to grate that into spindly little slivers to mix in, just for a bit of variety. The truffles should be sliced and chopped. Add some olive oil or melted butter to give the whole thing some fluid. When it’s mixed into a nice measured consistency, stuff the birds.
Finally, decorate the birds with the rosemary, puncturing the skin with a toothpick to insert the leaves so that they end up looking like a pair of misshapen porcupines. Hold off on the honey for now, you want to let these things cook a bit before the basting.
Throw them into an oven, preferably pre-heated to 350 degrees, although if you forgot that part, throw them in anyway. It will just take a bit longer. They should cook for about an hour, hour and a half depending on the size. Cover with tin foil for the first 45-60 minutes.
Every 30 minutes, you are going to want to take them out and baste them with a nice thin layer of honey. Choose something light, like clover honey, nothing too cloying. You can use one of those fancy baking brushes, or just drizzle it on with a fork. For best results rub some butter on first, followed by the honey on top of it. It should cook up nice and dark, a rich ochre.
Use a baking thermometer if you’ve got it to determine when the thing is done, or just cut near the leg joint, where the leg meets the breast, and when the juice runs clear you know it’s done. I prefer it a bit dry, so let it lay an extra 15 minutes or so if you’re the same. Then spoon out the stuffing, slice off some muscle, and enjoy.