Autumn Date Night: Roasted Cornish Hens with Spiced Cous Cous and Braised Kale

Friday, October 7, 2011

Looking for a fancier dinner for a stay-home date night? Perhaps having a small dinner party coming over and want to impress them without getting too complicated? This is the perfect dinner for you!

Nothing is more comforting than a nice roasted chicken. However, even I get sick of the same ol' chick. When I feel like something different, something with a little more "awe" factor I go to cornish game hens. You'll find not only do they taste amazing, but they're even easier to prepare than a big roasted bird.

Cornish game hens look like mini chickens but taste a little more like turkey with a slightly gamey taste that's just wonderful. They can be prepared the same exact way you would a chicken or turkey -- brined or not, often roasted, flavored with pretty much anything -- and they take just a tad over an hour to cook. They are low-stress and make a stupidly easy food to make for a special occasion dinner or for company, because you can prep them in advance then pop them in the oven and actually enjoy your guests. For this recipe, I used simple salt, pepper, and good olive oil for seasoning and some fresh thyme and sage to stuff in the cavity for aroma and flavor. So easy and so good.

To go along with, I wanted something a little more special than rice or potatoes (which you can certainly do for this dish as well). Israeli cous cous is not only super easy to prepare, but it's fun to eat. Prepared just like pasta or other cous-cous, you can flavor it as you like and make it in advance, keeping it at room temperature until ready to serve. I wanted to go the spice route in the dish with the cous cous, so I cooked it with chicken broth (always adds richness) and flavored it with a cinnamon stick, then fresh scallions and mint, currants, and toasted pine nuts. It offered a wonderful contrast to the hen and the different textures were so much fun to eat.

To round out the dish, hearty (and healthy!) kale. The easiest of the three to prepare, I simply braised fresh kale leaves in some olive oil, garlic, and chicken broth until wilted and tender. I think the total prep-to-cook time was maybe 10 minutes, if that. Also can be done in advance and simply rewarmed right before serving.

Plating them together in a restaurant-style adds Fancy Factor to the dish and will be sure to impress. This meal is all inclusive, tastes amazing, and will delight your senses and guests. Enjoy it!

Roasted Cornish Hens with Spiced Cous Cous and Braised Kale
for the hens:
2 cornish hens
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
fresh thyme and sage leaves  (you can use any combo of herbs you like)
extra virgin olive oil

for the cous cous:
1 3/4 chicken stock
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp unsalted butter (or olive oil)
1 cup Israeli cous cous
1 cinnamon stick
3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh scallions
2 Tbsp fresh mint leaves, torn
2 Tbsp dried currants (or cranberries)
2 Tbsp toasted pine nuts

for the kale:
1 bunch kale, stems removed and leaves torn or cut into pieces
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chicken stock

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Wash the hens and gently pat dry with paper towels. Getting them as dry as possible will enable you to season them properly and let the brown properly in the oven. Either spray or rub with some olive oil an oven-proof dish that the hens can fit into snugly. Season the hens on the outside generously with salt and pepper, and inside the cavity as well. Stuff the cavity with the herbs and fit into the baking dish. You can tie the legs together with kitchen twine if you wish, but if you chose the right dish they will fit snugly enough so you don't have to tie them. Place in oven and roast for about 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until juices run clear when cut. The last 20 minutes of roasting, begin basting the hens every 10 minutes like you would a turkey to ensure even browning and nice color. When done roasting, let stand 5 minutes before serving so juices can redistribute.

To make the cous cous, heat the chicken broth and butter in a pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add the cous cous all at once as well as the cinnamon stick and salt. Give a stir, cover with lid, and reduce heat to low. Let cook stirring once or twice until all the liquid is absorbed and the cous cous is nice and plump and tender, about 10 minutes. If you have to, add more broth. Once the cous cous is ready, add the scallions, mint, currants and pine nuts and toss with a fork to incorporate and fluff up the cous cous. It is now ready to serve.

To make the kale, heat the olive oil in a large saute pan or pot until warm. Add the garlic and cook stirring often until the garlic just begins to turn golden brown. Add the kale all at once -- the water from the kale will make the oil jump and crackle, so don't be alarmed -- and season with salt and pepper to taste. Saute the kale a few minutes, then add the broth. Cover with lid, and let simmer at medium-low heat until kale is nice and tender, about 10 minutes. Serve hot.

To plate the meal, spoon out some cous cous in the middle of a plate. Place the hen right on top of the cous couscous cous. Dot the kale around the cous cous (or serve on the side for people to help themselves). Serve.

*This recipe is enough for 2 people, with some cous cous left over. To make for 4, simply add 2 more hens and season them appropriately; cooking time will remain the same. And add 2 more bunches of kale to the recipe, and up the broth to 1/2 cup for the braise. The cous cous should be just enough for 4 people, but you can make more if you wish. Adjust according to cous cous package instructions.

Make Ahead Tips:

1) you can season and stuff the chickens the morning of or even night before the party; bring to room temperature (15 min) before ready to place in oven.

2) the cous cous can be done a few hours in advance and just kept covered at room temperature.

3) the kale can be done a few hours in advance, then rewarmed before serving.

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