- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A few weekends ago, a good friend and I, along with our husbands, hosted a dinner party for eight. I love entertaining like this because it means that all the planning, the grocery shopping, the cooking and even the frenzied last-minute worrying are shared.

For our gathering, my pal and I first chose a menu. It would begin with store-bought blinis garnished with smoked salmon and dollops of creme fraiche. The main course would be roasted Cornish hens served atop roasted fennel and fingerling potatoes.

A salad and homemade pecan pie (a specialty of my friend) topped with vanilla ice cream would complete our offerings.

Our party went off without a single snafu. I did the marketing for the main course while my co-host took care of the appetizers, salad and dessert.

The day of the fete, I drove to her house where the dinner was to take place. While I prepped the Cornish hens and vegetables, she baked the pie. Then she set the table, and I chose the serving dishes. That evening we worked in tandem to cook and assemble the dishes.

Although our guests ate with abandon, it was the Cornish hens that garnered the most compliments. We sauteed fennel and fingerlings (those slim little finger-shaped potatoes) in olive oil, seasoned them with the glorious herb mixture known as “herbes de Provence,” then popped them in oven.

We rubbed split hens with more of the herbs, browned them in olive oil, then placed them on the vegetables already in the oven. When done, the birds were a deep golden brown and the vegetables perfectly tender. A simple pan sauce made with white wine and butter was a finishing touch.

Much of the preparation for this all-in-one entree, we learned, could be done ahead. At serving time, we browned the birds, gave the vegetables a head start in the oven, then added the hens. To double the following recipe, use two large roasting pans — another good reason for cooking with a friend.

Roasted Cornish hens with fennel and fingerlings

2 medium fennel bulbs (1½ to 2 pounds total)

1 pound fingerling potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled

1½ tablespoons herbes de Provence (see note)

1½ teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 large Cornish hens (about 11/4 to 11/3 pounds each), split and patted dry

½ cup olive oil plus extra if needed, divided

½ cup dry white wine

2 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature

Arrange a rack at center position and preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Trim lacy stems from the fennel bulbs and place stems in a glass of water; reserve for the garnish. Halve fennel bulbs and cut out and discard tough triangular cores. Cut ½-inch julienne strips from the halves. Halve the potatoes lengthwise. Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine herbes de Provence, salt and pepper. Rub half of this mixture on both sides of the Cornish hens.

In a large, heavy, flameproof roasting pan set over medium high heat, heat 5 tablespoons of the olive oil until hot. Add Cornish hens, cut sides down, and cook, turning several times, until browned on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove to a platter.

In the same roasting pan over medium high heat, heat 2 more tablespoons olive oil until hot. Add fennel and potatoes, and saute, turning, just until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. If necessary add more oil.

Stir in the remaining herbes de Provence mixture. Place pan in oven and roast vegetables 15 minutes.

Remove the pan from oven, and arrange hens, cut sides down, on top of vegetables. Brush hens with remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Return pan to oven and roast hens and vegetables 10 minutes.

Reduce temperature to 350 degrees and continue to roast until Cornish hens are well browned and juices run clear when hens are pierced with a sharp knife, 20 to 25 minutes more.

Remove hens and vegetables to a platter and cover loosely with foil. Place roasting pan over a stovetop burner set on medium-high heat. Add wine and whisk well to loosen any brown bits on bottom of pan.

Bring mixture to a simmer, then whisk in butter. Cook, whisking, until sauce thickens slightly, about 2 minutes. Pour sauce over hens and garnish platter with a few of the lacy stems. Makes 4 servings.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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