The quintessential holiday of Vermont – Thanksgiving! It is my favorite holiday! I have always hosted a huge dinner with 25 to 30 friends and extended family.
There was a wonderful pre dinner hors d’oeuvres and champagne hour with everyone shoulder to shoulder enjoying each other with loud animated conversation. A lot of these folks, from all over the country, traveled miles for Thanksgiving in Vermont where many only saw each other on this one day each year. I cannot really explain what a joy it was for all of us involved. As we all sat down at well set tables all around the house, we enjoyed a sumptuous Thanksgiving meal. We have done this for over 15 years.
You can imagine the frustration all of us are feeling at the prospect of Thanksgiving 2020. No shoulder to shoulder camaraderie - no 25 to 30 people – no long travel miles etc.. etc.. Although, I have to say – I am not giving up the champagne!
So, what do we do? Let’s all get over the disappointment for what we don’t have and figure out how we can enjoy a safe holiday this year.
A few suggestions
- Keep it small – Only invite people you are sure don’t have the virus and are being safe themselves. You should be able to seat them far enough apart and serve them their own plate of food.
- Deliver food or a dinner to friends who you cannot fit in the house.
- Wear Masks
- Have hand washing pumps
Hopefully, you will know who and what is safe at your home.
Now we can talk about how to have a great holiday meal this year. Instead of a big turkey this year, we are going to have Cornish game hens. They look like little turkeys and can easily serve a small crowd – 6 to 8. They are great with stuffing and cook in a short amount of time. I can’t imagine not having stuffing on Thanksgiving.
For side dishes use either sweet potato or butternut squash and don’t forget the cranberry sauce. This is a real Thanksgiving meal and will bring back memories of easier times.
Roasted Cornish Game Hens
Interestingly enough, these game hens are neither game (wild) or specifically hens (female). They are domestic chickens (male or female) bred to develop a large breast in a short amount of time. They are grown for 4-6 weeks and taken when they reach 1½ to 2 lbs. My favorite way to serve them is roasted with all the herbs and spices you would use on a turkey. With the large breast they do look like miniature turkeys.
I like to brine the hens for several hours or overnight before using, but it is not necessary and you can skip this step if you like.
Make the Brine:
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup salt
- 3 to 4 cups of apple cider
Mix the salt and sugar with 2 cups of hot water. Dissolve thoroughly, let cool and pour over the hens in a large pot. Add the apple cider to cover the birds. If there is not enough liquid fill the rest with water so that the meat is submerged. Place a heavy plate on top of the meat and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and no longer than overnight. Pour off the brine and pat the hens dry. Keep refrigerated until ready to use.
Preparing the Hens
You will need around 2 pounds of game hen per person – not everyone will eat a whole bird. Cook -2 hens for two guests -3 hens for three or four guests -4 hens for five or six guests and -5 hens for seven or eight guests. I would cook a small turkey for any more than 8 guests.
- 2-5 Game Hens
- Brine – if using
- ½ cup fresh chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoons dried thyme
- 1 tablespoon dried basil
- 2 tablespoon dried and crushed rosemary
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 lb. room temperature butter
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 10 cloves of garlic – whole peeled
- 3 whole lemons
- 3 apples
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 4 cups chicken stock
- 1 cup dry vermouth
- 3 quarts of coarsely chopped celery, carrots, and onions for the roasting pan
Combine all the spices (parsley, thyme, basil, rosemary, and oregano) in a bowl. Rub butter all over the outside of the birds. Pick up the skin and put a tablespoon of butter under the skin on both sides of the breast. Also rub butter inside the hen. Put the spice mix over the breast and rub it in well.
Put a whole clove or two of garlic inside each hen, as well as a whole half lemon and a whole half apple. They will add flavor to the bird when cooking.
Put the chopped vegetables in a roasting pan large enough to accommodate your hens. Place the hens in the roasting pan breast side up next to each other. Add the chicken stock, and vermouth to the pan and put in a preheated 450-degree oven for 30 minutes. Check to make sure there is enough liquid in the roasting pan. Put some more broth in the pan if it is getting low. We will be using this liquid for gravy later on. Turn the oven to 375 degrees and cook for another 20 minutes. Check the temperature of the hens at this point. We are looking for a temperature of 165 at the thickest part of the breast. Take them out of the oven and rest them for 20 minutes. Set the hens aside in a covered dish. Scoop out the vegetables from the pan and set aside. Pour all the juices from the roasting pan into a saucepan. Make sure to scrape all the brown bits from the roasting pan into the juices in the sauce-pan.
Make a roux with the flour and some of the butter and put into the gravy in the saucepan to thicken it. Serve on the side of the hens.
When serving the hens slice a couple in half (right down the middle of the breast bone) so those who do not want a whole bird have the choice to take half.
This is the recipe I always start with when making stuffing. It is great on its own, but you can have some fun with it by adding different ingredients. I give a few suggestions and a way to turn this into a very yummy bread pudding stuffing.
- 4 cups toothsome white bread (cut into cubes and lightly toasted)
- 1 cup butter
- 2 medium onions – finely chopped
- 2 ribs celery – finely chopped
- 2 carrots – finely chopped
- 2 apples – peeled and chopped
- 1-2 cups chicken stock
- 1 cup fresh parsley – chopped
- 2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 dried sage leaves - crumbled
- Salt and pepper
Cut the bread into cubes and toast - just until dry - on a flat tray in the oven. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, cool and set aside in a large mixing bowl. You can also use a packaged herb seasoned dressing.
Sauté the onion, apple, celery and carrots in 4 tablespoons of butter until they are soft but not colored. Taste and add salt and pepper. Add 1½ cup of the stock along with the dried thyme, parsley, and the crumbled sage. Cook until stock is reduced and incorporated. Turn the heat off and add other optional ingredients (dried cranberries or cherries, nuts, chestnuts etc…) you might be using. Add the remaining butter and the 2 cups of the bread cubes (or packaged stuffing mix). Stir this whole mix up and assess how it looks. If it is really dry add more stock. The bread cubes or stuffing mix should be soft and moist while retaining their identity. If it seems too wet add a small amount of the bread. You can put in a little extra salt, pepper and butter at this point. Cook in a casserole pan in a 350 degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes.
Make a Bread Pudding Stuffing:
Use only one cup of broth when putting the stuffing together. Butter a casserole dish and put in the stuffing mixture. Put 1½ cups of milk and 3 eggs into a medium bowl. Lightly whisk this mixture together – do not make it too foamy. Add salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg and stir. Pour this over your stuffing and pat it down. Do not really mix it up. Let the milk cover the whole mix. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes. Check for doneness by sticking a knife down into the middle and moving it to the side to see if there is any liquid milk. If there sput it back in the oven for 5-minute intervals. You do not want to overcook. It should be a little nervous in the center when you take it out.
This works well as a non-gluten and vegetarian alternative.