Time for Thai Cornish Game Hens with Chili Dipping Sauce

A simple marinade, a toss on the grill, and an easy chile dipping sauce to finish are all that's involved in making this punchy Thai Cornish game hen dish.
A simple marinade, a toss on the grill, and an easy chile dipping sauce to finish are all that’s involved in making this punchy Thai Cornish game hen dish.

You know that favorite, forgotten shirt you stumble upon one day in the back of your closet, and rejoice?

That’s what I think of Cornish game hens.

These small birds are usually hidden away on a low shelf in the grocery store freezer — if you’re able to find them at all.

When you do, and throw them into your shopping cart for the hell of it, you remember just how good they are and how you really ought to cook with them more often.

That’s what ran through my head after one taste of “Thai Cornish Game Hens with Chili Dipping Sauce.”

The recipe is from “The Outdoor Cook” by America’s Test Kitchen, of which I received a review copy.

Perfect for this time of year, this cookbook is filled with 150 recipes for cooking on grills (both gas and charcoal), griddles, planchas, rotisseries, pizza ovens, and smokers.

There are tips for setting up your fire on both a gas and charcoal grill, types of fuel to use, and even how to set up a fire pit.

The recipes run the gamut from “Smoked Nachos,” “Burnt Whiskey Sours,” and “Grilled Swordfish Tacos” to “Fried Rice with Ham, Gai Lan, and Mushrooms,” “Thick-Cut Rib Steaks with Ember Baked Potatoes” and “Glazed Rotisserie Pineapple with Salted Rum Butterscotch Sauce.”

The marinade.
The marinade.
The dipping sauce.
The dipping sauce.

For the Cornish game hens, blend cilantro, a heap of garlic, light brown sugar, white pepper, coriander and salt in a food processor before stirring in fish sauce to create a vibrant marinade.

Slather the marinade over the Cornish game hens that have been spatchcocked with their backbones removed so they lay flat. Allow the marinade to work its magic for up to 24 hours.

When ready to cook, heat your grill, and cook the hens skin-side up before rotating them halfway through the 30-minute or so cooking time.

Serve with the easiest chili dipping sauce that’s simply white vinegar simmered with sugar, garlic, salt, and minced Thai chiles. I used two of the tiny chiles, which turned this sauce plenty spicy with an equally sweet, vinegary and garlicky taste.

Thanks to the marinade and grill, the hens turn out really juicy, smoky, and savory tasting. Dip a forkful of meat into the sauce for an added twang.

This delectable recipe serves one hen per person. If you serve the hens with steamed white rice, plus a crunchy salad of cabbage or cucumbers, you may only need to serve half a bird per person, as they’re pretty substantial for their size.

If anything, this dish will convince you that like that once-buried shirt, Cornish hens deserve their place back in your regular rotation.

A dish that hits every high note.
A dish that hits every high note.

Thai Cornish Game Hens with Chili Dipping Sauce

(Serves 4)

For game hens:

1 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and stems

12 garlic cloves, peeled

1/4 cup packed light brown sugar

2 teaspoons ground white pepper

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons table salt

1/4 cup fish sauce

4 (1 1/4- to 1 1/2-pound) Cornish game hens, giblets discarded

For chili dipping sauce:

1/2 cup distilled white vinegar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon minced Thai chiles

3 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 teaspoon table salt

For the game hens: Pulse cilantro leaves and stems, garlic, sugar, white pepper, coriander, and salt in food processor until finely chopped, 10 to 15 pulses; transfer to a small bowl. Add fish sauce and stir until marinade has consistency of loose paste.

Place 1 hen breast side down on cutting board. Using kitchen shears, cut through bones on either side of backbone; discard backbone. Flip hen and press on breastbone to flatten. Trim any excess fat and skin. Repeat with remaining 3 hens.

Rub hens all over with marinade. Transfer hens and any excess marinade to 1-gallon zipper-lock bag and refrigerate at least 6 hours or up to 24 hours, flipping bag halfway through marinating.

For the chili dipping sauce: Bring vinegar to boil in small saucepan over high heat. Add sugar and stir to dissolve. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until vinegar mixture is slightly thickened, 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let vinegar mixture cool completely. Add Thai chiles, garlic, and salt and stir until combined. Transfer sauce to airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use. (Sauce can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks. Bring to room temperature before serving.)

For a charcoal grill: Open bottom vent completely. Light large chimney starter filled with charcoal briquettes (6 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour evenly over half of grill. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent completely. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.

For a gas grill: Turn all burners to high; cover; and heat grill until hot, about 15 minutes. Leave primary burner on high and turn off other burner(s). (Adjust primary burner as needed to maintain grill temperature between 350 and 400 degrees; if using 3-burner grill, adjust primary burner and second burner.)

Clean and oil cooking grate. Remove hens from bag, leaving any marinade that sticks to hens in place. Tuck wingtips behind backs and turn legs so drumsticks face inward toward breasts. Place hens skin side up on cooler side of grill (6 to 8 inches from heat source for gas grill) with legs and thighs facing fire. Cover (position lid vent over hens if using charcoal) and cook until skin is browned and breasts register 145 to 150 degrees, 30 to 35 minutes, rotating hens halfway through cooking.

Using tongs, carefully flip hens skin side down and move to hotter side of grill. Cover and cook until skin is crisp, deeply browned and charred in spots and breasts register 160 degrees and thighs register 175 degrees, 3 to 5 minutes, being careful to avoid burning.

Transfer hens skin side up to cutting board; tent with aluminum foil and let rest for 10 minutes. Slice each hen in half or into 4 pieces and serve, passing chili dipping sauce separately.

From “The Outdoor Cook” by America’s Test Kitchen

Another Cornish Game Hen Recipe to Enjoy: Cornish Game Hen Soup with Fried-Shallot Oil by Eric Kim

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