For Valentine’s Day, a pair of birds you’ll love

by Terry B on February 9, 2011

Cornish hens roasted on a bed of leeks, olives and Meyer lemons are an impressive, elegant dinner, sure to win hearts on Valentine’s Day. Recipe below.


Marion cooked for me on our first date. I cooked for her on our second date (which was the next night—was I moving too fast?). We only learned much later that cooking for someone this early in a relationship (is it even a relationship on the second date?) can be pitted with minefields. Somehow we survived. Thousands of home cooked meals later, when we want a romantic dinner, home cooking often wins out over restaurants. For this Valentine’s Day dinner, I’m turning the kitchen over to Marion.

When you are thinking about a romantic dinner, presentation is as important as taste. You want to create something that is delicious, but that also honors the beauty of the occasion. And it helps to have something that is easy to assemble, and that you can put together beforehand—no sense fussing around in the kitchen when you could be with your guest, opening the champagne.

That’s the great thing about Cornish hens. There is something elegant about having an entire little bird on your plate. And when the recipe is this one, with the hens prepped way in advance and then slipped into the oven cornish-hen-smto roast to a golden brown, and your home slowly filling with a wonderful aroma, and the thin lemon slices barely visible through the translucent skin, well, the effect can be more than a little decadent.

The inspiration for this dish was sweet, fragrant Meyer lemons, which seem to be everywhere this winter. They are suddenly so ubiquitous that this weekend we found them at a neighborhood grocery store, six in a bag for $2.50, a record low for the Midwest. They are so beautiful, with their thin skins and their lovely scent, that I don’t know how anyone can resist them.

This recipe is easy to assemble—a lot of the work may be done early in the day. You can prepare the bed of vegetables and the hens hours beforehand, then hold them over in the refrigerator until an hour before you intend to start roasting them. After you slide them into the oven, open the Champagne and serve a simple starter, just some cheese or toasted hazelnuts. Start this dinner with a green salad, if you like, and serve the hens with a little rice on the side, along with some olives and Meyer lemon wedges.

If you don’t like olives, you’ll still like this dish. You don’t have to eat the olives, in fact, to enjoy their presence (same goes for the Meyer lemon wedges). They meld with the garlic and lemon to impart a beautiful flavor to the hens, without punching you with total olive flavor.

Cornish Hens with Meyer Lemons and Olives
Serves 2

2 Cornish hens
3 Meyer lemons
8 small garlic cloves or 4 large ones
3 small leeks
1-1/2 cup olives [see Kitchen Notes}
black pepper
olive oil

Take the hens out of the refrigerator about an hour before you intend to roast them so they can come to room temperature.

Slice one of the lemons very thinly. Cut the other two into eight wedges each. Peel the garlic cloves. If they are large, cut them in half lengthwise. Clean and prepare the leeks. Slice off root end and most of the green tops. Slice leeks in half lengthwise. Rinse under running water, fanning layers to wash out any trapped grit. If the olives are standing in their brine, drain them.

Coat a roasting pan (not a deep one—I used the shallow glass baking dish you see in the photo) with olive oil. Place the leeks in the pan, cut side down and spaced evenly; then pour in the olives so they are evenly spaced around the dish.  Scatter the lemon wedges and garlic cloves around everything. The idea is to create a bed on which you will roast the hens.

Loosen the breast skin on each of the hens. Slip lemon wedges under the skin so the breast is completely covered with slices. If you have any left, put them in the hen’s cavity. The same goes for any tag ends of the lemon.

If you are doing advance prep, at this point, cover the hens and put them back in the refrigerator, cover the baking pan and put it in the fridge too. Take them both out an hour before you want to start roasting, so everything can come up to room temperature.

When you are ready to start the hens, preheat the oven to 425. Arrange the hens on the bed of olives, lemon, leeks and garlic. Paint them well with olive oil, give everything a good grinding of black pepper, then salt the hens lightly.

Put the pan in the hot oven and set a timer for 20 minutes. At 20 minutes, lower the heat to 350 and set the timer for another 25 minutes. At that point, check the hens. They should be golden brown and the little legs should move easily. Check the temperature with an instant read thermometer in the thickest part of the breast (I know—trying to find a thickest part on these tiny things is not so easy). The hens are ready when they reach 165° F.

At that point, take the pan out of the oven. Let it sit for five minutes. For the presentation, place a hen in the center of the plate, arrange a couple of leeks to one side, and a little mound of rice, if you are serving it, on another side. Simple, elegant, delicious.

Kitchen Notes

What makes them Cornish? Their names, not their origins.These little all-white-meat chickens were first bred in Connecticut in the 1950s.

Why are you telling me to use garlic on date night? You won’t smell all horribly garlicky from this—the big chunks and slow cooking just add to the mellow deliciousness.

What kind of olives? Good cured ones. Make sure the olives are pitted. We used a mix of tiny niçoise and bigger brine-cured green olives, like Nafplions, lucques or picholines. As for those pallid things that come in cans, don’t use those. They don’t taste like much of anything, and they were probably “cured” with lye. They do have diverting names, though. Super Mammoth is the largest, but Extra Jumbo is, well, medium, but smaller than Giant, yet way larger than Superior. I may not love canned olives, but I love their names.


{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Cynthia Fox-Giddens February 9, 2011 at 2:36 pm

I like the cornish hens idea especially for two. They seem just right on this romantic day!

The Rowdy Chowgirl February 9, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Oh, those are just beautiful. I’m definitely in favor of celebrating Valentine’s day at home with a special dinner rather than fighting the crowds in restaurants.

altadenahiker February 9, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Oh, and I have cornish hens in the freezer. And meyer lemons on the tree. And dried garlic from my harvest this summer. (Yup, canned black olives are cured in lye. And I love ’em.)

Christina February 10, 2011 at 12:51 am

Ditto Altadenahiker!

And, check your email!

Marion February 10, 2011 at 1:59 am

Thank you, Cynthia.

Rowdy Chowgirl, it does seem more special at home.

Altadenahiker, isn’t it great to have all the moving parts just right there?

Christina, we did, and more there.

Jenny February 10, 2011 at 2:07 am

Sounds super yummy. I’m cooking for four, would love to make this, wondering if that would change cooking times at all? thoughts?

Marion February 10, 2011 at 2:57 am

Jenny, good question. Is your oven large enough to roomily accommodate two 9 x 13 pans on one shelf? If so, then I recommend roasting them in two pans both on the middle shelf, each holding two birds, and turning the pans 180 degrees at the point when you turn down the oven heat, and then again another 15 minutes in. You’ll probably have to add a couple of minutes at the end given the additional door opening. Again, rely on your instant read thermometer.

BingePittsburgh February 10, 2011 at 4:22 pm

I think one of the first meals I cooked for my girlfriend were two cornish game hens. Unfortunately, it turned out horrible. Fortunately, she’s still with me a few years later!

Terry B February 10, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Hi, BingePittsburgh! I’m guessing the fact that you made the effort got you points with your girlfriend. But you also bring up a good point—in cooking for dates, especially the first time, men and women both often make the mistake of taking on something too elaborate in an effort to impress. Cook something simple that you’re comfortable preparing (and I don’t mean opening cans of Hormel chili) and you’ll do just fine.

Ed Schenk February 11, 2011 at 11:56 pm

You can show no more love for someone than to cook for them. You bare your soul!

Kim Petersen February 12, 2011 at 10:44 am

Wonderful recipe Marion, thanks. I love that you can prepare the hens ahead of time–always a plus when entertaining or even coming home from work. Thanks for the great website.

Eeka February 12, 2011 at 10:56 am

Sounds fantastic! This also reminds me of a story a friend tells: Seeking to impress him, a potential girlfriend prepared a romantic dinner, featuring roasted Cornish hens. My friend applied his fork, intending to secure the hen for slicing… but the hen shot off his plate, flew across the table, and landed in the woman’s lap! Both were embarrassed… and then started laughing! The flying bird was retrieved, the meal went on, and so did the relationship.

Marion February 12, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Ed, exactly. Especially nowadays, when our food choices are so eloquent and even fraught.

Kim, welcome! And your website is pretty fascinating.

I love your story, Eeka. I am also dimly recalling one of the early dinners I fixed for Terry, during which I was so distracted that I failed to notice, until a charring effect had occurred, that some of the pasta strands were hanging over the edge of the pot.

Lael Hazan @educatedpalate February 13, 2011 at 2:08 pm

The first dish Giuliano ever made for me was chicken with olives. I don’t usually like olives; however, you are right, they give great depth of flavor to the dish. I still married him :)
I love Myer lemons and believe the citrus is a great flavor combo with the game hen. What an elegant and lovely dish.

Laura February 13, 2011 at 4:55 pm

You know it’s been years since I’ve had a Cornish game hen…you’ve inspired me to give it a try! Totally agree on romantic dinners in…I cooked for Paul on our first Valentine’s Day together and we’ve made it a tradition ever since.

Marion February 14, 2011 at 1:33 am

Lael, thank you so much. We are suddenly all about the flavor of olives as part of the whole.

Laura, we hadn’t had any for quite some time either. We were poking around at the store and: !!!

Christina February 21, 2011 at 1:15 am

Dudes! I just picked up two lovely Cornish Game Hens today, and you know I’m swimming in Meyer lemons–I think this will be dinner tomorrow. Thanks again for the inspiration.

Terry B February 21, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Thanks, Christina! And thanks for the lovely lemons from your tree—watch for new recipes with them soon.

Paul Byron Downs March 1, 2011 at 7:11 pm

Cornish Game Hen is one of my favorite main dinner dishes. Remember one Christmas made with pomegranates and oranges.


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