This Thanksgiving, try Cornish hens instead of turkey

On Thanksgiving Day, why not follow presidential custom and grant your turkey a pardon? Sure, the big bird has always been at the center of the traditional feast, but cooking it is almost always a headache.

That's why I'm proposing Cornish hens instead of turkey. They're at least as scrumptious as turkeys, but they're much smaller - weighing in at 1 pound to 2 pounds - making them easier to cook. They roast up much more quickly, and you don't have to wrestle them into a roasting pan to make them fit.

You'll be roasting these hens at a high heat, so make sure your oven is very clean or your kitchen will smoke up. Also, use a roasting pan with high-ish sides to keep the spitting fat and juices from spraying everywhere. Once you've pulled the hens from the oven, they must rest for at least 10 to 15 minutes to guarantee a moist bird.


For the stuffing:

1/2 pound firm white, homemade-style sandwich bread

3/4 cup finely chopped onion

1/3 cup finely diced celery

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh sage

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme

1 teaspoon lemon zest

6 cooked breakfast sausages (about 6 ounces raw), sliced crosswise 1/4 inch thick

1/2 to 3/4 cup chicken broth

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

For the hens:

4 Cornish hens (about 2 pounds each)

Oil for brushing the skin

For the gravy:

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Giblets from the hens (save the livers for another use)

1 small onion, sliced thin

1/2 medium carrot, sliced thin

1/2 cup red wine

3 cups chicken broth

1/3 cup water

41/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Heat the oven to 250 degrees.

Cut the bread into 1/2-inch cubes, and spread the cubes in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake them until barely golden, about 40 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.

In a medium skillet, cook the chopped onion and celery in the butter over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Transfer the vegetables and butter to a medium bowl. Stir in the herbs, lemon zest, bread, sausages and enough of the stock to moisten the cubes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Heat the oven to 450 degrees.

Stuff each hen with 1/2 cup of the stuffing, and tie the legs. Rub oil over all the hens, and arrange them in one layer on a rack in a large roasting pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Roast the hens for 35 minutes or until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the leg thigh joint registers 165 degrees. Transfer the hens from the roasting pan to a platter, and let them rest for 10 to 15 minutes.

While the hens are roasting, in a large skillet, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat, and add the giblets, sliced onion and carrot. Reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer the giblets and vegetables to a small saucepan. Deglaze the skillet with the red wine, scraping up the brown bits; simmer until reduced by half. Add the wine and chicken broth to the saucepan; bring to a boil. Simmer until the hens come out of the oven.

Strain out the giblets and vegetables, return the liquid to the saucepan, and bring it to a boil. In a small bowl, whisk together the water and flour, and add it to the liquid in a stream, whisking. Add any juices from the platter with the resting hens. Simmer the mixture for 5 minutes; salt and pepper to taste.