"Perhaps the most impressive of all the cookbook blogs are the three devoted to the 2004 edition of Gourmet magazine's "The Gourmet Cookbook" -- all 5¼ pounds and 1,300-odd recipes of it. Befitting this culinary Everest, all three writers are overachievers in their professional lives."

--Lee Gomes, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2008
"I should have told you before how much I've been enjoying reading your thoughts. You seem like such a great cook."

--Ruth Reichl, Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet Magazine, June 8 2008, comment on "Chocolate Velvet Ice Cream".

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Grilled Cornish Game Hen with Basil Butter

Friends, I have an ambivalent relationship with grills. Out of all the ways you can cook something, they seem to me to be the least predictable. They may not be the most fraught with danger (you can burn your house down just as easily with a stove), but they sure can be an accessory to ruining dinner if you don't keep a vigilant eye on things.

I have especially mixed feelings about poultry and grills. Why? Because fat catches on fire.

No, this is not my chicken-on-a-beer-can, but I can relate.

When I read over the recipe for Grilled Cornish Game Hen with Basil Butter, I was filled with optimistic misgivings. Optimistic because I LOVE the Gourmet Cookbook and love trying new recipes and I love basil AND butter. And game hens. Filled with misgivings because I have caught a lot of chicken on fire, and these hens not only have their skin on, they have butter under the skin AND slathered on top. To me, that seemed like a recipe for a bonfire.

But I'm willing to try anything, even with a house full of expectant diners. I had 9 adults and 2 kids to cook for, so I got five game hens and doubled the compound butter recipe.

I don't know why I don't make compound butters more often. They sure are good. And what a great time to use basil--it smells like heaven.

This recipe (not on epicurious, by the way) asks you to flatten, or spatchcock the birds. You do this by backing over them slowly and gently with your car...just kidding. You do this by cutting out the backbone and opening the bird up like a book. Cut small slits to tuck in the tips of the wings and drumsticks. This technique allows you to cook the bird evenly, and I've used it to great effect in a frying pan. Here's a photo of somebody's smoked, spatchcocked bird so you can get an idea:

The recipe asks you to preheat the grill on high, turn it to moderate, and grill the birds for ten minutes so they can get brown and crispy--then cook them with indirect heat by turning off one or more burners or moving them off the charcoal.

I took a deep, trusting breath and threw those suckers on the grill. I hovered for a little bit, then went inside for about one second.

When I came back out, sure enough... that telltale gray smoke was billowing out from under the grill hood. When I opened it up I was relieved that it wasn't the drip pan or grease trap that was on fire (previous grilling mishaps) but the butter + the chicken fat was creating serious flammable havoc on the hot drip rods under the grill rack, and the birds were covered with gray soot.

I flipped them over. I moved them around. No matter what I did, the fat burst into flame, and so I finally just moved on to part two, and turned off the front two burners so they could cook with indirect heat, hopefully without charring.

They did cook. But when I deemed them ready to pull off the grill I was disappointed in the flabby, sooty skin so I put them on a sheet pan and threw them under the broiler for about five minutes where they crisped and browned up nicely.

Here's my final platter, ready for dinner:

Dinner was fine. The people liked it. But the whole time I was cooking these birds on the grill I was thinking that they would have been superb in the oven, with maybe a little pan gravy made from those drippings instead of having them go up in smoke.


t2ed said...

Try a drip pan under the birds next time.

Chicken skin has so much fat in it, it's almost impossible to cook without a flare up.

I've done plenty of hens on the grill, but I just don't think they're worth the hassle of spatchcocking. Which sounds dirty but really isn't. And I'm not sure I may not try that car trick next time.

Melissa Bach Palladino said...

Thank you for that suggestion! Do you put it under the grill rack or under the birds on top of the rack? I always kind of thought that the point of grilling was those grill marks...if you've got a pan under the bird why not use the oven?

Grilling confuses me, but I'll get it someday.