Saturday, February 25, 2006

Five-spice game hen

Once in a while, you have to roast a chicken. It's not something I do as often as I could, especially given that it's so easy. Part of the problem is that I seem to have a similiar attitude about roasting chicken as I do about seafood: I want to cook it the same day I buy it. So I wander through the supermarket, or by the poultry counter at the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market, and I see some nice bird. Then I think, "Oh, but I was going to make oxtail stew today," and that's the end of that.

The last time I was at McCaffrey's (the local high-end supermarket), I got a bitty little Cornish game hen because I'd been thinking about "Five-Spice Game Hens" from Everyday Asian. Ideally, one marinates and then grills these game hens, but I live in a condo where the management frowns on grilling. Luckily, the recipe includes instructions on roasting, so that's what I did.

First you marinate the game hen in a spice paste of three chopped shallots; two minced garlic cloves; two teaspoons of five-spice powder; half a teaspoon of cracked black pepper; three tablespoons each of fish sauce, rice wine and soy sauce; two tablespoons of palm sugar; and one tablespoon of sesame oil. Marinate the game hen overnight if you can; I put it in a freezer bag with the marinade and turned it periodically to try to make sure the marinade was fairly evenly distributed. Incidentally, the recipe is written for two game hens, but I roasted only one; I didn't attempt to reduce the marinade recipe.

Once the game hen is marinated (three hours being the minimum), bake it in a pan with a rack at 350 F for 45 minutes, then at 400 F for ten more minutes. Henricksson recommends that one split the game hens in half, but I opted to leave the game hen whole. Now that I think about it, that might be why the hen was undercooked, with the portions nearest the bone still quite pink when I removed it from the oven. The outside parts of the hen were done, however, very tasty and tender, so I just ate those. Maybe an oven thermometer is a worthy kitchen investment...

A few words on the provenance of the recipe: Henricksson says, "Poultry, five-spice powder, and a grill are a classic combination, seen time and again in Chinese and Vietnamese cooking." The inclusion of fish sauce in this recipe puts it squarely in the Vietnamese camp, but Henricksson stops short of ascribing this recipe to a particular country. I find a very similar recipe for "Shiu Ng Heung Gai (Oven Roasted Spiced Chicken)" in the Chinese section of Charmaine Solomon's The Complete Asian Cookbook; here the marinade is composed of Chinese light soy, peanut oil, rice wine, garlic, salt, ginger and five-spice powder. No analogous recipe appears in the Vietnamese section of Solomon's book.

Meanwhile, Ha Roda's A Vietnamese Kitchen has "Roasted Cornish Hens;" these hens are marinated in a combination of soy sauce, hoisin sauce, ginger, rice vinegar, fish sauce, garlic, black pepper and water. After roasting the hens for 40 minutes, Roda brushes a mix of one teaspoon honey and one tablespoon water over the hens, then returns them to the oven to broil for 20 more minutes or until golden brown.

So, I guess it's like barbecue: find your own special marinade and go with it.

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