Hens, hay, and beer: the new Thanksgiving meal trifecta. —INGRAIN, Winter 2018
For those who fancy a farmhouse holiday, anything roasted on hay makes for both a stunning presentation and a lively conversation centerpiece. The small stature of Cornish hens means the dark and white meat are ready within minutes of each other; soaking the hay in water before roasting helps keep the birds even more moist. (Pouring several glugs of beer over everything as the hens roast certainly doesn’t hurt, either, and keeps the hay moist as well.) Even still, as any firefighter who has worked on Thanksgiving will attest, it might be wise to not stray too far from the kitchen as the birds roast. This one would be tricky to explain to the insurance company (“Excuse me, did you say hay?”).
Look for smaller, 1-pound birds; some offered at superstores could pass for small chickens. This recipe is easy to double (or triple) depending on the number of guests, but it might require adding a few pieces of ceramic cookware to your collection. Plan on one hen per adult. We leave it up to you whether to start a fight at the kiddie table over who gets only half a bird.
Pairing An earthy Belgian-style pale ale, like Matilda (Goose Island) or Orval, harmonizes with the grassy-as-it-gets hay. Both—with their funky, spicy, and earthy notes—are holiday dinner crowd-pleasers.
6 (1 to 1¼ pound) Cornish game hens, thawed
Handful of winter citrus (blood oranges, tangerines)
1 bunch fresh thyme
24-ounce bag Timothy hay
2 bottles crisp beer (312 Urban Wheat Ale)
To serve: Star Anise Cranberry Sauce (ingredients + recipe below)
Hens in the fridge for 24 hours if frozen. Rinse hens, pat dry, and rub inside and out with ½ teaspoon of salt per hen (or to taste). Cut the citrus into wedges and stuff a wedge or two into the cavity of each hen, along with a sprig of thyme. Tie up the legs with kitchen twine to enclose the citrus and thyme. (Give the legs a firm tug to elongate them slightly before tying; this keeps them from being so compact.) Place hens on a sheet pan lined with a wire rack and refrigerate overnight, uncovered, to dry out the skin.
Hens with pepper to taste. Heat a large cast-iron or heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add a splash of oil and brown hens, one or two at a time, until nicely golden on all sides. Pour off most of the fat from the pan, but save a few tablespoons and the brown bits.
PREHEAT Oven to 425°F. Rub hens lightly with oil and sprinkle with pepper. Put several handfuls of hay (we used Kaytee all-natural Timothy hay, $4 for 24 ounces) in a colander and rinse well under cold running water; drain and leave hay to sit for several minutes. Lay hay on a roasting pan (cover the bottoms and sides generously) and arrange hens on top of hay. Leave an inch or two of space between each bird.
Hens for 20 minutes, then pour the beer directly over each bird and hay (yes, drink the rest). Reduce oven to 375°F. Continue to roast for about 25 minutes longer, or until thigh juices run clear when pierced (180 degrees on a digital thermometer). If your birds are on the large side, plan on an extra 10 to 15 minutes. It’s always a good idea to rotate the pan, front to back, halfway through cooking.
Citrus (do not peel) while the hens are roasting. Reheat the pan used to sear the hens, and sear the citrus, a few slices at a time, on both sides until golden brown. Remove to a bowl and pour the juices over the seared citrus.
Hens from the oven and let rest, loosely covered, for 10 minutes. Transfer hens and seared citrus to a large serving platter (discard hay) and serve with the star anise cranberry sauce.
STAR ANISE CRANBERRY SAUCE
1 (12-ounce) bag of fresh cranberries
¾ cup sugar
2 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1½ to 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
1 (12-ounce) bag of fresh cranberries, ½ cup water, ¾ cup sugar, 2 star anise, and 1 cinnamon stick in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer berries until softened, about 10 minutes. Cool completely and refrigerate overnight.
Star anise and cinnamon; booze it up with Grand Marnier (1½ to 2 tablespoons is our sweet spot). Refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.