Buffalo Style Rock Cornish Hens

I went to college in upstate New York (RPI), which meant lots of buffalo wings. There were many local hole-in-the-wall places that would deliver them to your door, just like pizza or Chinese. My spice tolerance back then was through the roof, though it's mellowed a bit since I moved to the tropics. Still, I make wings every now and then when I get the urge, as well as the usual standards today, like buffalo chicken tenders, buffalo chicken sandwiches, or even grouper, buffalo-style. Butter, tomato, and hot sauce is as much an upstate New York trinity as bell pepper, celery, and onion is Louisiana's.

I like my roasted chickens simple -- hot temperature and no liquid. But, I had some cornish game hens in the freezer, and it's fun to dress up a personalized chicken, and what better way than to give it some heat, New York style?

A Rock Cornish game hen is not a wild chicken relative, but actually a cross between the well-established breeds of Plymouth Rock chicken and Cornish chicken, harvested in adolescence at 5-6 weeks old. Similar to lamb or veal (as opposed to mutton or beef), there's a tenderness that the older chickens lose as they age. The dark meats aren't quite so dark, and the breast meats are a little more juicy, though overcooking will completely wipe out that advantage, of course.

There was a bar in Troy, NY, that served my favorite buffalo wings. I was mostly vegetarian back then (I was on the Japanese Zen version of vegetarianism -- gobs of fish, but little else that didn't grow out of soil), but I couldn't keep off the wings. Friends of mine had their favorites, but this bar was the one I would come back to every weekend.

Meanwhile, I was a bartender on our campus pub, and a fellow bartender knew the owner of my favorite joint. I was talking to my fellow beer-slinger about the distinctive wing taste, which I couldn't place, and he gave me the secret: "Oh, yeah, they use V8 juice."

It was an epiphany to my college-seared proto-foodiness. My German grandparents used to pour V8 down our throats any chance they could get, and I actually kinda liked the stuff from an early age. I think that bit of nostalgia drew me to these wings in some sort of subliminal childhood pleasantry.

So, to start with my well-honed version of my favorite buffalo sauce, a couple tablespoons of butter are melted in a saucepan, mixed with about 1/3 cup V8 juice, and 1/4 cup hot sauce (use your favorite, I like Texas Pete myself, but there are a lot of differences in heat). I like an extra teaspoon of cayenne pepper to keep it spicy, but with all the other flavors in the sauce, the ground pepper just adds heat -- add more or less to taste.

The sauce is almost a butter sauce, so too much temperature might cause the sauce to separate. I don't keep my buffalo sauce above a very, very gentle simmer, if that. It won't hurt it to separate, but it doesn't look as silky.

Next, two thawed hens are removed from their packaging and thoroughly dried inside and out. The wing tips are snipped, the birds are salted inside, trussed, then salted outside.

I have one of those flavor injectors, the one that looks like a mad scientist nuclear vaccine administrator. I don't usually like using them on normal sized roasted chickens, because (I'm in the Keller camp on this), butter and sauce adds water, which adds steam, and roasted chickens should be dry-roasted. I don't think injecting sauce adds any juiciness that isn't there already, but, with these mini-chickens, I like to add a little flavor for fun.

So, the sauce gets sucked up the syringe, and injected into the breast, thighs, and legs of the hens.

For cooking, I roast the hens at 450F degrees for 15 minutes, until the skin gets a little crispy. Then I baste with the sauce.

Then, I lower to 375F, and cook for another 15 minutes, then baste again.

I baste again 15 minutes later, then test for temperature about 10 minutes after that. Total cooking time is about 50-55 minutes for two, and the tomato and butter will start to caramelize a bit on the skin.

15 minutes before the hens were done, I put on some rice -- 1/2 cup arborio, 3/4 cup chicken stock, 1/4 cup white wine, simmered covered for 15 minutes, then beat up a bit to release some starch, and it's a semi-risotto. It's my favorite method, and I've probably done it a few times in the last few posts :)

For plating, we had a little fun and tried to plate in a cast-iron skillet, to make the hen look a little classic. Some rice, the hen, and some sauce drizzled over the top, with some scallions for bite and green. This wouldn't be a good plating for a dinner party (the pans are about 20 times heavier than the meal), but it's pretty!

Deconstruction: The skin was spicy and crispy and wonderful. Basting with new sauce, instead of pan drippings, adds more stuff to caramelize. I have to admit, between the spicy skin and the sauce, I didn't actually notice any spiciness inside the meat from the injection. I'll probably skip that step next time to see if I can see a difference, or possibly inject a few hours in advance and let it sit in the fridge and distribute itself through the meat, sort of like an internal brine or marinade. A fluffy rice is the perfect mechanism to soak up the extra sauce, though, and I thought the scallions, which were originally a bit of green for the photo, worked really well with the spiciness and earthiness of the bird. They sort of matched the concept of celery sticks that usually garnish the wings in New York.

Gravlax, Part 1

Farmer's Market