Elegant Summer Grilling: Cornish Game Hens

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Prep Order:
Make lime butter a day ahead
Marinate hens a day ahead
Prep corn 2 hours ahead
Prep potatoes 2 hours ahead
Soak cedar plank
Put hens on the grill x 1 hour
Put potatoes in the oven when hens are about halfway through cooking
Add corn to the grill when the hens are about halfway through cooking

Grilling is second nature here in Texas. We do it all the time. Some of us year-round. We cook steaks and fish, chops and wings, ribs and brisket, and various other assorted game and birds, but seldom do we hear about grilled Cornish game hens. So in an attempt to add something new and a little bit elegant to our summer grilling repertoire, we’re cooking up some moist and tender, sweet marinated Cornish game hens on a cedar plank and pairing them with a favorite potato recipe I adapted from Pinterest — Crispy Smashed Potatoes — and my brother Gregg’s famous Corn on the Cob with Lime Butter.

Cornish game hens, sometimes known as Rock Cornish game hens, are a cross between the Cornish game chicken and the Plymouth or White Rock chicken. They aren’t just small chickens as you might think but are actually a particular breed unto themselves. One hen serves one guest very nicely, so I always serve one whole hen per person. Cornish hens are just lovely for an outdoor or indoor supper and are relatively easy to prepare. They also dress up very nicely for a dinner party and are a dish that can be prepped ahead and cooked in the oven, keeping you free to entertain your guests.

You can use almost any marinade you like. I prefer something with a bit of sweetness like the one here. The brown sugar in the marinade not only sweetens the meat, but imparts a beautiful brown glaze to the skin. You can also stuff the hens and roast them in the oven, pre-boil and then grill them, or marinate them and pop them onto a cedar plank and grill, as we’ll do here. The cedar plank evokes a wonderful light smoky flavor to the hens that can only be achieved with a plank.

The crispy smashed potatoes are a huge favorite in our house, and there’s a fun little technique to “smashing” them. They cook at a very high temperature to get the crispiness, so be sure to keep a close eye. And corn on the cob? Well, who doesn’t like corn on the cob? But cooked in the husk and then slathered with my brother Gregg’s famous lime butter? Well, you just gotta try it. You’ll never use plain butter again.

As is typical with many of my meals, you can dress it up or dress it down depending on your event. And remember…with a little practice, you too can be a Chef Impersonator.

Grilled Cornish Game Hens with Crispy Smashed Potatoes and Corn on the Cob with Lime Butter
(This menu serves 2)

Grilled Cornish Game Hens on a Cedar Plank

  • 2 Cornish game hens, about 20 oz. each
  • 1 small yellow onion, cut into small chunks
  • Sea salt
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • 1 cedar plank
  • For marinade:
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • ½ tsp. fresh ground pepper
  • ½ tsp. paprika
  • 1 Tbsp. crushed garlic, using garlic press
  • 1 tsp. powdered mustard
  • 2 Tbsp. light brown sugar (I suggest 2 heaping tablespoons for a bit more sweetness)
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar or cider vinegar

If frozen, defrost Cornish game hens fully according to instructions. Mix marinade ingredients well in a gallon-sized plastic bag. Add cleaned and dried hens to bag, seal and coat hens with marinade inside and out. Refrigerate overnight if possible, turning several times. If you can’t marinate overnight, an hour or two will do just fine.

About an hour before you’re ready to grill, soak 1 cedar plank in cold water per instructions. Remove plank from water.

Remove hens from marinade, saving it to baste the hens later. Sprinkle cavity with a generous portion of salt and pepper, and add onion pieces to cavity until full, being careful not to overstuff the cavity. Onion in the cavity will add both flavor and moistness.

You can par-cook the Cornish hens, or any chicken pieces with bones-in, by boiling them in water for about 20 minutes, depending on the size. Then marinate and grill. My mom used to par-cook chicken before grilling. It significantly reduces the grilling time.
Substitute your own favorite spices and toppings to the Crispy Smashed Potatoes. Try butter, fresh rosemary, salt and pepper with a dollop of sour cream; or make Loaded Smashed Potatoes with bacon bits, green onion, grated cheddar and crème fraiche.

The Indirect Grilling Method: Light only half of your grill to highest heat setting. I have four gas burners on my grill, so I use just the two on one side. Place hens on the wet cedar plank and place on gas or charcoal grill grates on the unlit side of the grill. Close the grill during cooking. Cook in this indirect method for about 30 – 45 minutes, basting with the leftover marinade every 15 minutes. When the hens are nearly done, turn on the burners directly under the plank (or move the plank directly over the coals if using a charcoal grill), close the grill and cook for another 10 – 15 minutes until nicely browned and legs are beginning to separate from the hens, or until juices run clear and internal temperature is at least 180 degrees.

Remove hens from the plank. Let rest for 5 minutes and serve.
(If you prefer not to grill, this entire recipe can be made and then cooked in the oven at 375 degrees for 1 hour.)

Crispy Smashed Potatoes

  • 2 pounds small red potatoes, all the same size, about 1 ½ - 2” in diameter
  • 6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 – 2 tsp. thyme
  • Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

To prepare the potatoes:
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Place one rack on the top position and one rack on the lowest position. Place potatoes in boiling water covering the potatoes. Boil until very tender and fully cooked. Remove from the water and let cool enough to handle.

When potatoes are cool, toss them whole in a bowl with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil until coated. And here’s the fun part: Place the potatoes onto a baking sheet and score the top of the skin of each potato with an “X” with a sharp knife, being sure not to go all the way through the potato. Then, with a flat-bottom drinking glass, press down gently on the potato at the center of the “X” until it’s smashed into a circle about ¼ inch in thickness.

Drizzle potatoes with the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, and top with thyme, salt and pepper to taste. I use a good bit of sea salt on these. They seem to require it.

Place the potatoes on the top oven rack and bake for about 15 minutes. Then move the baking sheet to the lower rack and continue to bake another 20-25 minutes, or until nicely browned and crispy. I keep a good eye on them when they’re on the bottom rack. Don’t want them to burn!

Corn on the Cob with Gregg’s Lime Butter

  • 2 ears corn on the cob, husks on, silk removed, soaked in cold water
  • 4 Tbsp. butter (½  stick), at room temperature (I use Kerrygold Irish Butter. Totally worth it.)
  • Zest of 1 lime
  • Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste (after cooking)

To prepare the corn:
Let butter come to room temperature in a small bowl. Remove bright green zest from the lime using a zester, microplane or the fine setting on a box grater, zesting it right into the butter. Stir well, cover and set aside.

Note: The longer the lime zest is in the butter, the more flavorful it becomes. Make a day ahead to save time, and store in a covered container in the refrigerator.

To remove the husk:
Pull the outer husk down to the bottom of the corn, leaving the husk intact at the end. Remove the silk and pull the husk back up to cover the corn. (If you’d like the corn itself to be slightly blackened, remove a couple of the outer darker green husks.) If a husk happens to come off completely, just wrap it onto the corn and secure with cooking twine.

Soak the corn in cold water for 10 minutes. Remove from the water and shake off excess. Place corn in the husks directly onto the grill grates, close cover and grill for approximately 20 minutes, turning every 5 minutes. Husks will blacken, but corn will be moist and flavorful. Remove corn from grill. Remove husks and cover with lime butter, salt, and pepper (if you dare), and enjoy with lots of napkins.