An Alternative Thanksgiving Menu

A quick note to let you know tomorrow (Saturday) I’ll be at J Winery in Healdsburg at 2 p.m. for a book signing.  Feel free to stop by and say hello.  They’ll also be serving tastes of the Crab Gratin from my cookbook, “From the Earth to the Table”.  Hope to see you there.

This week I am in Medford, Oregon at The Willows Cooking School in the beautiful Rogue Valley.  I am teaching students to create an alternative Thanksgiving Menu with recipes that offer some new twists from the usual fare but still deliver on the traditional indulgence of flavors and seasonal ingredients.

cornish game hens copyOver  the next few days I’ll include recipes from the entire menu.  For now, I thought I’d start with the main event:

CIDER BRINED AND SMOKED GAME HENS
Serves 6

This brine works well with chicken or turkey.  Brining is a magical process that adds both flavor and moistness to the meat.  In this recipe I’m using a covered barbecue to both cook and smoke the birds.  You want to make sure to use the indirect heat method (described below) in the barbecue and monitor both temperature of the barbecue and the birds with a thermometer.  The objective is to cook the birds slowly enough so that they can pick up a rich smoky flavor and to be sure they are cooked through before removing them.

For the Brine:
1 quart apple cider
1/2 cup sodium reduced soy sauce
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup kosher salt
6 cups water
2 medium oranges, sliced
1/2 cup coarsely chopped ginger
3 whole star anise
2tablespoons chopped garlic
3 whole bay leaves

6 whole game hens, split with backbones removed
Olive oil

Woods chips for smoking

Add the apple juice, soy sauce, sugar, salt and water to a saucepan and bring to a simmer stirring all the time to dissolve the sugar and salt.  Add the oranges, ginger, star anise, garlic and bay leaves and simmer for a minute or two then remove from heat and cool.
Add the game hens to the cooled brine making sure they are completely covered.  Refrigerate for at least 4 – 6 hours, turning occasionally.

Prepare the grill using the indirect heat method (see below) and also the smoking wood of choice according to the grill manufacturer’s instructions.  Remove the hens from the brine and pat dry.  Brush hens liberally with the olive oil, place on grill and cook/smoke until done.  Birds should reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees in the thickest part of the meat.  Depending on heat of barbecue it should take approximately 40 minutes.  Let birds rest loosely covered in foil for at least 5 minutes before carving.

The Indirect heat method

With this method you want to cook the food with the heat source off to the side.  It’s essential that you have a grill with a good tight fitting lid so that so that the heat, as it rises, can bounce off the lid and the inside surfaces of the grill to slowly cook the food evenly on all sides.  It’s the preferred method for cooking large cuts of meat and whole birds.  The method is simple.  You first put a drip pan in the center of the charcoal bed and then arrange hot coals on either side. The cooking grate goes over and then you arrange the food (in this case the hens) over the drip pan.  This method prevents flare-ups and the drip pan allows you to capture the juices to make a sauce or gravy.

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