On Thanksgiving Day, why not follow presidential custom and grant your turkey a pardon? Sure, the big bird has always been at the center of the traditional feast, but cooking it is almost always a headache.
The problem is how long to cook it. Sometimes a 16-pound turkey is cooked to perfection in three hours flat. Sometimes it requires three hours and 45 minutes. This unpredictability makes it tough to plan the cooking of the other items on your menu and to figure out when the meal itself can begin.
That's why I'm proposing Cornish hens instead of turkey. They're at least as scrumptious as turkeys, but they're much smaller — weighing in at 1 pound to 2 pounds — making them easier to cook. They roast up much more quickly, and you don't have to wrestle them into a roasting pan to make them fit. With hens that are on the large size, you get two servings out of every bird. (After the bird has cooked and rested, slice it in half, starting at the mid-line of the breastbone.)
Stuff birds that are 1 to 1 1/4 pounds with one-third cup stuffing instead of the half-cup, and start with a cooking time of 25 minutes. You'll know they're properly cooked when the internal temperature, taken in the thickest part of the thigh, registers 165 F.
You'll be roasting these hens at a high heat, 450 F, so make sure your oven is very clean or your kitchen will smoke up. Also, use a roasting pan with high-ish sides to keep the spitting fat and juices from spraying everywhere. Once you've pulled the hens from the oven, they must rest for at least 10 to 15 minutes to guarantee a moist bird. If you try to slice it in half too soon, the juices will come streaming out.
The stuffing recipe yields a little more than you'll need for four large hens. So when the hens are resting, spread out the extra stuffing in a pie plate and heat it up in the oven — covered, if you want it moist, uncovered, if you want it crispy.
Miniature Roast Birds for Thanksgiving
Start to finish: 2 hours, 15 minutes (40 active)
For the stuffing:
1/2 pound firm white, homemade-style sandwich bread
3/4 cup finely chopped onion
1/3 cup finely diced celery
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh sage
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon lemon zest
6 cooked breakfast sausages (about 6 ounces raw), sliced crosswise 1/4 inch thick
1/2 to 3/4 cup chicken broth
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the hens:
4 Cornish hens (about 2 pounds each)
Oil for brushing the skin
For the gravy:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Giblets from the hens (save the livers for another use)
1 small onion, sliced thin
1/2 medium carrot, sliced thin
1/2 cup red wine
3 cups chicken broth
4 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Make the stuffing:
Preheat the oven to 250 F. Cut the bread into 1/2-inch cubes and spread the cubes in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake them until barely golden, about 40 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.
In a medium skillet, cook the onion and celery in the butter over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Transfer the vegetables and butter to a medium bowl. Stir in the herbs, lemon zest, bread, sausages and enough of the stock to moisten the cubes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Make the hens: Preheat the oven to 450 F. Stuff each hen with 1/2 cup of the stuffing and tie the legs. Rub the oil over all the hens and arrange them in one layer on a rack in a large roasting pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Roast the hens for 35 minutes or until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the leg thigh joint registers 165 F. Transfer the hens from the roasting pan to a platter and let them rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
Make the gravy: While the hens are roasting, in a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat and add the giblets, onion and carrot. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer the giblets and vegetables to a small saucepan. Deglaze the skillet with the red wine, scraping up the brown bits; simmer until reduced by half. Add the wine and chicken broth to the saucepan; bring to a boil. Simmer until the hens come out of the oven. Strain out the giblets and vegetables, return the liquid to the saucepan and bring it to a boil. In a small bowl whisk together 1/3 cup water and the flour and add it to the liquid in a stream, whisking. Add any juices from the platter with the resting hens. Simmer the mixture for a 5 minutes; salt and pepper to taste.
To serve: Cut each hen in half and transfer to 8 plates with the stuffing side down. Pour some of the gravy over each portion and serve the remainder on the side.
Nutrition information per serving: 369 calories; 138 calories from fat; 15 g fat (6 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 141 mg cholesterol; 680 mg sodium; 21 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 32 g protein.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton is host of public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals." She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows, including "Cooking Live." Her latest cookbook is "HomeCooking 101."