When my mom would cook chicken, it was an event. For years, she made it her mission to cook a new chicken recipe every Friday. As the sun set, she blasted Josh Groban. And, wine in hand, she’d season the meat with the gusto of a conductor rousing an orchestra. Whatever the recipe, she shook in copious quantities of garlic powder and salt. All of it made her smile. Her food contained so much joy it would have been fine if it had tasted lackluster. But it never did. Because my mother was the poultry whisperer.
At age 10, I wrote her an acrostic poem for Mother’s Day that said: “T is for the tasty turkeys you cook.” Eating at her table was festive and filling. As my husband likes to remember, “Any time you’d stop to talk, or put down a fork, she’d say, ‘There’s plenty of food’ — after you’d already eaten so much food.” Two of my mother’s specialties were her turkey matzo ball soup and her Rock Cornish hens a l’orange. As journalist Laura Silver writes in Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, “Marcel Proust had his madeleine, Jewish New Yorkers had their knishes.” And I, Jewish New Yorker though I am, have my mother’s chickens.
To make my mother’s Cornish hens, I follow her instructions: Rinse, take out the inside schmutz, and dry. I hear my mother’s words, feel her anxiety. The hardest part of the recipe is keeping the hens from cooling. Flip them over without ripping the skin, she says. I armor each with foil, as instructed, while I make the sauce. The sauce requires boxed white wine, orange juice, beef bouillon, orange bits, cornstarch, and half a cup of Grand Marnier. I don’t drink, but the birds do.
When my childhood home in New Jersey was sold after my mother’s death seven years ago, I received her cookbooks. I can hold her favorite one, the 1973 edition of The Good Housekeeping Cookbook, and see her creative process. The front is stuffed with recipes from friends, articles on foods to try, and the invaluable excerpt from Nora Ephron’s Heartburn with the perfect recipe for artichoke vinaigrette.
Tucked betwixt it all is the newspaper clipping that started it all — a New York Times article from 1999 titled, “From Poussin to Capon a Chicken in Every Size.” It calls Rock Cornish hens “celebratory and a bit decadent” and contains a recipe with an orange. Her trajectory is clear. She must have flipped straight to the Good Housekeeping recipe for duckling a l’orange — the page most splattered with sauce, most kissed by her signature dinners — and then tweaked it to make it her own.
Mom’s cookbook is so worn the pages fall in clumps into my hands. In this way, our fingerprints still meet.
In The Order of Time, theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli writes, “If I observe the microscopic state of things, then the difference between past and future vanishes.” At that level, the only difference between past and future is the way we observe the transfer of heat. Molecules move from an ordered state to a disordered one. We perceive this as an ever-increasing blur. And because of that blur, we can no longer distinguish cause from effect, past from future. Our days become a bleary, endless march toward disorder.
But amid the deaths, the disappointments, the joys and the intimacies, you can instead choose to restore order. By applying energy in one moment, in one place, you can increase order for just that moment, and then it is like you are returning to an earlier state.
I like to think that by applying my energy to cooking these chickens, I am, effectively, for that moment, reclaiming the past.
Cooking chicken incites memories of both my mother and what I know of our ancestors. In the eastern European shtetls, and long before, Jewish families planned all week for their Friday Shabbat meal. They’d make chicken soup for that meal that was supposed to give them a taste of The World to Come.
What I want is a taste of The World That Was. I still have keys to my childhood home. But that house has been sold, smashed, and turned into someone else’s mansion. So I must return by other means. I turn to my mother’s help.
While the l'orange sauce thickens, I plate the wild rice and the green beans. They frame the hens like a picture from my childhood. The picture is missing my mom's face, but I feel her warmth. One whiff of that sauce, and it's like she just put that plate in front me. With the smell, I begin to travel. And it's the taste, the taste that brings me home.
4 to 8 servings
The roasting pan(s) you use should be sturdy enough to withstand stove-top heat; the sauce finishes on a burner. You'll need an instant-read thermometer.
For the hens
4 Cornish hens (each at least 1½ pounds; giblet packets removed), patted dry with paper towels
1⅓ cups vegetable oil
2½ teaspoons kosher salt
6 teaspoons granulated garlic (garlic powder)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
2 navel oranges
For the sauce
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups fresh orange juice
2 rounded/heaping teaspoons Better Than Bouillon beef base
4 teaspoons cornstarch
8 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier
1. For the hens: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease the bottom of a large, shallow roasting pan with cooking oil spray. Alternatively, a large ovenproof skillet can be used.
2. Coat the Cornish hens inside and out generously with the oil, then the salt and garlic powder. Coat them on the outside with paprika. Arrange the birds breast side down in the pans. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, then use tongs to carefully dislodge and turn them over, without tearing the skin. Increase the heat to 425 degrees; roast for 30 to 40 minutes, or until your instant-read thermometer inserted into the thigh meat (away from the bone) registers 165 degrees.
3. Meanwhile, rinse the oranges, then cut them into thin rounds.
4. When the hens are done, transfer them to a platter and tent loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm while you make the sauce.
5. For the sauce: Drain the fat from the roasting pan but leave the browned bits. Place on the stove top over medium heat. Add the wine, stirring to dislodge those browned bits. Cook for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the wine has reduced by half, then stir in the orange juice and the bouillon base, until well incorporated. Reduce the heat to low.
6. Whisk together the cornstarch and orange liqueur in a liquid measuring cup until smooth; this is your slurry to thicken the sauce.
7. Increase the heat to medium; pour the slurry into the pan and stir until the sauce is bubbling and is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and leaves a trail when you run your finger through that coating. Lay half the orange slices in the sauce.
8. Taste, and season with salt as needed.
9. When ready to serve, uncover the hens. Cut them in half for serving, if desired. Drizzle them with the sauce and arrange all the orange slices (sauced and not sauced) on and around them. Serve warm.