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Cornwall is the county in the most south-western region of Great Britain. A rather isolated peninsula, its verdant landscape is the product of heavy rainfall and a moderate climate tempered by the sea. Its scenic coastlines are punctuated by granite hills and are a popular tourist attraction. Even Sherlock Holmes vacationed there, although his respite was interrupted by yet another murder mystery to solve in the “Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.”
Cornwall is the birthplace of the mythical King Arthur and the famous Knights of the Round Table. As the story goes, the sorcerer Merlin imbedded a sword within a stone and proclaimed that whoever could withdraw the blade would become king. Arthur did so and was crowned by Merlin. Other plots in the Arthurian saga include his victorious battles with the Romans, the quest for the Holy Grail, the adulterous relationship between his wife Guinevere and the famed knight Sir Lancelot, and Arthur’s ultimate demise by his nephew Mordred. Historians to this day debate whether Arthur is completely fabricated or whether he was a real person. It’s fairly certain he wasn’t an actual sovereign of England but he may have been a notable warrior who became the impetus for an elaborately embellished legend.
The actual history of Cornwall begins around 4500 BC, the age of the oldest stone tools found in the area. In 2500 BC Cornwall’s denizens began trading their tin and copper for bronze tools and gold with foreign civilizations. In 1000 BC the Celts, a bellicose people from the European continent, settled in Cornwall and became the ancestors of modern day Cornishmen. Cornwall was subsequently dominated by the Romans, the Saxons, and then after the Norman Conquest, finally began its integration into modern day England.
Cornwall, being nearly surrounded by the sea, naturally employs seafood in its traditional cuisine. Potatoes, turnips, dairy products, eggs, biscuits, puddings, and the world renowned Cornish pasty, (a pastry filled with meat and vegetables and sometimes fish), are also culinary mainstays. But it’s the Cornish hen that my historical meandering has finally led us to.
Cornish hen is a breed of poultry that originated in Cornwall. According to the USDA, a Cornish hen is a chicken of Cornish ancestry, six weeks of age or younger, and weighing less than two pounds. Smaller than other poultry they have short legs and broad breasts. Their flesh is succulent and they provide a proportionately high amount of breast meat for their diminutive stature. Cornish hens are regularly bred with other chickens to produce a range of commercial fowl. For example, the chicken mogul Donald Tyson created the Rock Cornish hen in 1965 by cross breeding Cornish hens with White Rock hens. Rock Cornish hens tend to be a little larger than regular Cornish hens. And don’t be fooled by the word “hen.” Your Cornish hen may actually be a Cornish rooster.
All of the rules and regs for selecting, storing and cooking standard chickens apply to Cornish hens. Look for plump specimens with unblemished skin. Use within 24 hours or freeze them, (remove the giblets before freezing). Cook them in the same manner and to the same temperature you would a regular chicken although I think roasting them is the best. Cornish hens make for an elegant alternative to traditional fowl. Serve one hen per person.
• 4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
• Rosemary, chopped, as needed
• Thyme, chopped as needed
• 1 medium onion, chopped
• Olive oil as needed
• Juice of half a lemon
• Salt & pepper to taste
• 2 Cornish hens
• 4 oz white wine
• 4 oz chicken stock
• 2 bay leaves
• 1 tablespoon butter
Preheat the oven to 350. Divide the garlic, rosemary and thyme in half. Mix the onion with half of the garlic, rosemary, and thyme. Add some olive oil, the lemon juice, salt and pepper. Save the other half of the garlic, rosemary and thyme for the sauce. Brush the inside and outside of the hens with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Fill the cavity of each hen with half of the onion mixture. Press it in with a fork or spoon. Trussing is not necessary.
Roast the hens until the dark meat registers 175 degrees on a meat thermometer. This will take about 45 minutes but ovens and hens vary so use a thermometer. When done remove the hens from the roasting pan and cover with foil to keep warm. Place the roasting pan on the stove and deglaze the pan on high heat with the wine, scraping the browned bits off the bottom of the pan. Add the stock, the remainder of the garlic, rosemary and thyme, the bay leaves, salt and pepper. Cook on high heat until reduced by at least half. Finish the sauce with butter and strain.
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