Grilled Cornish Game Hens with a Tomato-Fenugreek Sauce
In many Western countries, the U.K. and U.S. included, tandoori chicken is considered the signature dish of Indian cooking. Maybe so in those parts of the world, but in India, it was confined to the cooking associated with the Moghals, who dominated the northern regions just before the British took over their raj, and now it is associated with Punjab and Pakistan. Tandoori chicken showed up on restaurant menus in Old Delhi and soon spread to other parts of the world, roasting its way into people’s hearts. The chickens in India are much smaller than those in the U.S. and have a stronger flavor, so Cornish game hens are the perfect substitute.
Specially bred Rock Cornish hens, also known as game hens, are a cross between the Cornish and White Rock breeds of chicken. They are naturally small (weighing no more than 2 pounds) and have a slight “gamey” quality to the meat. They are more similar to the chickens in India than the larger, blander-tasting chickens used in the U.S. Rock Cornish hens are usually to be found in the freezer section of your grocery store. Thaw them in the refrigerator overnight or under cold tap water, still wrapped, for 2 to 3 hours. I find it’s much simpler to peel off their skin when they are still slightly frozen. A couple of dry paper towels afford a better grip when you pull off the skin. If Rock Cornish hens are unavailable in your area, substitute 1 small chicken (about 3 pounds).
Tip: It’s easier to roast larger pieces of the bird and then cut them into smaller serving pieces, and it retains their juiciness. Once the halves are slightly cool to the touch, cut each one into four pieces.
Fenugreek leaves, widely used in the northern regions of India, contribute a perfumed bitterness to curries. Both fresh and frozen fenugreek leaves are widely available in Indian grocery stores. Fresh leaves are not as common, but the frozen ones (available in 10-ounce packages) are omnipresent. Even more widespread are the dried leaves known as kasoori methi.
To use the dried leaves, I soak them in a bowl of water for about 15 minutes. Then I use my fingers to scoop them up from the water’s surface (they are very light and float to the top), leaving behind any dust or dirt, which will have sunk to the bottom of the bowl. When substituting dried for fresh or frozen leaves, use half the amount called for (½ cup dried for 1 cup fresh or frozen).
Cooking Methodgrilling, roasting
Total Timeunder 2 hours
OccasionCasual Dinner Party
Recipe Coursemain course
Dietary Considerationmain course
Equipmentbaking/gratin dish, grill
Taste and Texturecreamy, garlicky, hot & spicy, meaty, savory, spiced
- 2 Cornish game hens (about 1½ pounds each), skin removed, cut in half lengthwise (see Notes)
- 1/3 cup plain yogurt
- 1 tablespoon Ginger Paste
- 1 tablespoon Garlic Paste
- 2 teaspoons Balti Masala
- 2 teaspoons ground Kashmiri chiles; or ½ teaspoon cayenne (ground red pepper) mixed with 1½ teaspoons sweet paprika
- 1¼ teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
- Vegetable cooking spray
- 2 tablespoons Ghee or butter
- ½ cup tomato sauce
- ½ cup chopped fresh or frozen fenugreek leaves (thawed if frozen); or 2 tablespoons dried fenugreek leaves, soaked in a bowl of water and skimmed off before use (see Notes)
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne (ground red pepper)
- ½ cup half and half
Using a sharp knife, make four slits in each hen half: two into the breast meat, one in the outer thigh meat, and one in the inner thigh meat. Place the hens in a baking dish, meat side up.
Combine the yogurt, Ginger Paste, Garlic Paste, balti masala, Kashmiri chiles, and 1 teaspoon of the salt in a small bowl, and whisk to blend. Smear the hen halves with this orange-red marinade, making sure to stuff some of it into the slits. Refrigerate, covered, for at least 1 hour or as long as overnight, to allow the flavors to permeate the meat.
Preheat a gas or charcoal grill to high, or preheat the oven to 350°F.
If you are grilling, spray the grill grate with cooking spray. Place the hens, meat side down, on the grate. (Reserve any marinade for basting the hens.) Cover, and grill the hens, basting them occasionally with the remaining marinade and turning them over halfway through, until the meat in the thickest parts is no longer pink inside and the juices run clear, 30 to 40 minutes. Transfer the hens to a serving platter and cover them with aluminum foil to keep them warm while you quickly make the sauce.
If you are oven-roasting the hens, place a rack in a roasting pan and spray it with cooking spray. Place the hens, meat side down, on the rack. (Reserve any marinade for basting the hens.) Roast, basting them occasionally with the remaining marinade and turning them over halfway through, until the meat in the thickest parts is no longer pink inside and the juices run clear, about 45 minutes. Transfer the hens to a serving platter and cover them with aluminum foil to keep them warm while you quickly make the sauce.
To make the sauce, heat the ghee in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the tomato sauce, fenugreek, cayenne, and the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, to allow the flavors to meld, 5 to 10 minutes. Then stir in the half-and-half and continue to simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, to let it warm, 2 to 4 minutes.
To serve the curry, cut the hens into smaller pieces and toss them with the sauce.
2008 Raghavan Iyer