My oldest stepdaughter is not quite the adventurous eater that the rest of us are but for her birthday I wanted to make a fun and kind of fancy dinner she would like. I found cute little Cornish Game Hens in 4 packs and Costco and decided that these mini extra tasty chickens would be the perfect thing. My goal with all poultry is to have yummy flavors that permeate deep into the meat and don’t just sit up on the skin. For this recipe I used all the tricks for infusing flavor: marinating, seasoning rub, smoking, and a tasty sauce, and let me tell you it was worth the effort. I was not really sure how great these birds were going to be but wow did I underestimate. They were juicy, spicy and tender, it was game hen heaven.
I own a pellet grill, a Traeger, it’s was an impulse purchase at Costco that I have come to love. It does cool smoker things and cool BBQ things all at the same time. (You should try the pizza.) This little guy burns wood pellets for fuel and plugs into the wall so you don’t have to play with propane, charcoal or lighters, it is grill enough for a man but in many ways perfect for a woman. If you don’t have a smoker or pellet grill you can convert your regular BBQ into a smoker using soaked wood chips and smoker box, see the basics of that process here. I will say I love the light smoke flavor that the wood smoke gives these tasty birds but if you don’t have the equipment then just opt for an indoor oven at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes total cooking time.
Smoked Cornish Game Hens with Blonde BBQ Sauce
- 4 Cornish Game Hens
For the Marinade
- 1 cup olive oil
- ½ cup Jack Daniels or other strong dark liquor like rum
- 1 cup of white wine something drinkable
- ¼ cup lemon juice stuff in the bottle will work fine
- 1 head of garlic diced
- 1 large hand full of diced fresh green herbs like parsley or cilantro
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 tbsp black pepper
For Outside Seasoning Rub
- Olive oil
- Black pepper
- Cayenne pepper
- Granulated dry garlic
For the Blonde BBQ Sauce
- 1 cup diced dry apricots
- 1 cup apricot jelly
- 2 tbsp yellow mustard
- 2 tbsp honey
- Dash of sriracha or other hot sauce
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1-2 oz Jack Daniels
Marinate the Hens
The morning or night before you are going to cook this meal you will need spatchcock your birds and get them in the marinade. Removing the backbone is very simple just take a good pair of kitchen shears or sharp knife and slice out the spine. I like to use the shears and work in the sink; it’s a very easy process on these little hens as the bones are small.
Once the backbone is out lay the bird out skin side up and flatten down the breast bone with your palm and tuck the wings under. Rinse and dry the birds, being sure to remove any yucky bits on the underside of the bird and place them in a 2 gallon plastic bag or large non-reactive container.
Mix all the ingredients for the marinade together in a bowl and stir well. This is a pretty basic marinade that you could use on most pork and poultry, it’s nice and versatile. Pour the mix over the birds and toss them around to coat well. Let the birds sit in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours or as long as overnight tossing occasionally.
Smoking the Birds
About an hour and half or more before you want to serve the birds start preparing your smoker. If you have a Traeger that would mean oiling the grate, lining the drip pan with foil and turning on the grill on smoke and letting it come up to temperature. While you are waiting for the smoker to heat remove the birds from the marinade, reserve the liquid.
Lay the dried birds on a sheet and season the outsides of the birds with four dry spices and olive oil. Rub the seasoning into both sides of the birds. Use the spices in the quantities you prefer, we like a little heat so I use the cayenne liberally. I like to bring my meat to room temperature before smoking, so I brought the birds out of the fridge about two hours before they are going to hit the smoker.
Divide the reserved marinade, half goes into a pan that will sit inside the Traeger and half goes into a pot. Place the birds skin side up into the smoker evenly spaced so air can circulate. Don’t forget the pan with half the marinade; it will help keep the air inside the smoker moist. Close the lid and leave the birds to smoke for an hour at about 200-250 degrees with lots of smoke.
Making the BBQ Sauce
Place the pot with the rest of the marinade on the stove top over medium heat. Add 1 cup of diced dried apricots to the pot and let it boil until the liquid is reduced to about one third of what you started with.
When the marinade on the stove top has reduced to about third of what you started with add all the rest of the sauce ingredients and let thicken on low/medium heat. When the color of the sauces has turned to a rich gold and it has become thick remove from heat and use a stick blender to make a smooth and glossy sauce. Return to low heat to hold until you need it for the birds. If the sauce becomes too thick you can thin it with more whiskey or some chicken broth. Taste the sauce and adjust the salt and heat to personal preference.
Finishing the Hens
After an hour open the smoker and see what you have. The skin on of the hens should have a beautiful mahogany color and the inside temperature on the birds should be about 130 degrees.
Now turn the heat on the Treager up to high, or about 400 degrees. The birds should finish in about 15-20 minutes. The skin will crisp and the inside temperature will be 165 degrees.
I don’t like sticky glazes inside my grill so I remove the birds and add the sauce; if you are ok with all that gooeyness in your grill you can glaze the birds over heat. I also don’t like the flavor of burned BBQ sauce that often results from glazing meat over heat on any kind of grill. If you are cooking the birds in the oven you can add glaze for the last few minutes of cooking if you want or added when they are done cooking.
I served the birds one per person with some roasted veggies and steamed broccoli. These were pretty small hens, for larger birds I will often serve half a bird per person. I put the extra sauce on the table for everyone to enjoy.