My family always insisted that the centerpiece of our Christmas feast be some kind of show-stopping roast. We’re talking a standing rib roast or whole beef tenderloin. And, as if these prizes were not already rich enough in themselves, we tend to pair them with an extravagant sauce, usually bearnaise. Hey, it’s Christmas.
My challenge for this column was to come up with a Christmas dinner showstopper just as glamorous as the usual stars but somehow leaner. It couldn’t be pork because my parents don’t love pork. It might’ve been turkey, but we just featured it at Thanksgiving. And roast chicken — much as I love it — just seemed too prosaic for a once-a-year holiday feast.
Then it occurred to me that Cornish game hens might fit the bill. You can say they’re small — or at least smallish — but I prefer to think about them as individual. They were created during the ‘50s, after all, by a French couple in Connecticut who wanted something that didn’t exist at the time — a succulent bird suitable for a single serving.
They realized their dream by crossing a Cornish game chicken with a White Rock (or Plymouth) chicken. Despite the name, there is nothing gamy about this bird. On the contrary, it tastes like what it is — really moist and delicious chicken that is sized just right to serve one per customer.
To make sure the white meat stays moist, I pre-seasoned the birds with some salt. Then I flavored the little guys by stuffing some of everyone’s favorite poultry herbs — thyme and sage — under the skin. They’re plenty delicious as is, straight out of the oven, so don’t fret if you don’t have time to make the sauce.
Then again, it is Christmas dinner, so you might want to budget the time to do it up right. This particular sauce is based on an ingredient I wish I always had on hand — a brown poultry stock. It’s a happy cross between a chicken stock and a beef stock, boasting a much deeper flavor than the former, but taking less time to make than the latter.
You can make a regular chicken stock from any part of the chicken. Typically, the necks and backs are recruited, but I prefer to base mine on the wings, which boast the ideal ratio of bone (which provides gelatin) to meat and skin (both of which provide flavor). The wings get browned first, as do the vegetables, which is the key to deep flavor. I then simmer the ingredients for several hours, strain the stock, and boil.
Still, how to make the sauce creamy without cream? By reaching for evaporated skim milk, which is low in fat but thick in texture. Add a little Dijon mustard, and you’ve masked any persistent skim milk taste.
I tested this recipe on my family, and none of them could even tell it was low-fat. As far as they knew, it was a full-fat, full-flavor French mustard sauce.
HERB-ROASTED CORNISH GAME HENS WITH CREAMY MUSTARD SAUCE
Start to finish: 3 hours 20 minutes (30 minutes active)
¼ cup finely chopped fresh sage, plus extra to garnish
¼ cup finely chopped fresh thyme leaves, plus 1 large sprig for the stock, and extra to garnish
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon lemon zest