Birthdays just may be the ultimate special occasion. The single day of the year with the sole purpose of celebrating your very existence. Whether it’s a milestone entry into a new decade or simply the passage of another year, the day you came into the world is a cause for celebration. And indulging in a favorite food — especially one you don’t allow yourself very often — is the perfect way to commemorate you. This year for my birthday, Dan honored me with a rare treat — homemade buttermilk fried game hen. He used the recipe found in Chef Thomas Keller’s beautiful book, “Ad Hoc at Home” (click the link for the book, then scroll down for the recipe.) Not so coincidentally, Ad Hoc is one of our all-time favorite restaurants and the book, according to Chef Keller, is “a big collection of family meals and everyday staples, delicious approachable food, recipes that are doable at home.” While the recipe is indeed quite doable at home, it is time-intensive and involves many steps. Justifiably so, for a decadently delicious dish worthy of a birthday.
The first step is making the brine. Fill a large pot with water, then add 5-6 cloves of garlic (no need to peel them), a handful of parsley, a few bay leaves, a teaspoon or so of black peppercorns, 1/4 cup of honey, 1 cup of kosher salt and 3 lemons (cut into fourths.) Bring the brine to a boil and cook until all the salt is dissolved.
(You may notice the lack of lemons in the above photo. We didn’t have any at the time and were going to leave them out, until we noticed that the recipe states that “the key ingredient here is the lemon…” Alrighty then. We finished prepping the brine and chicken, then went to the store for lemons. We’re all for making do with the ingredients you have on hand, but “key ingredient” sounded pretty important.)
Allow the brine to cool, then add some ice to chill it down even further before adding the game hen.
While the brine cools, cut up the game hen. (Side note — we used 2 game hens instead of chicken (as called for in the recipe) because cooking with game hen results in a more appropriate amount of food for just us, and frying game hen results in a more indulgent breading-to-meat ratio of finger-licking-goodness.)
Cut out and remove the hen’s backbone (either discard it or keep it to make stock.) Remove the legs by cutting apart each leg at the joint that connects the thigh to the hen, then cut through the joint connecting the thighs to the drumsticks. Cut off the wings at the joint that attaches them to the breast. Finally, cut the breasts apart into 2 pieces.
Dan also removes the little pointy tips of the wings because there is no meat in them. As with the backbone, you can either discard these or keep them for stock. Because a tiny little game hen doesn’t yield enough bone/discard bits to make much stock, we stockpile (so to speak) the bits in a resealable bag in our freezer until we have enough to make a pot of stock.
Add the game hen pieces to the cold brine and refrigerate for 8-12 hours. (According to Chef Keller, if you brine the poultry for longer than 12 hours, it may become too salty.)
When you get back from the lemon run, add the lemons to the brine.
Remove the hens from the brine and rinse each piece under cold water. Place the pieces on a rack, pat them dry with a paper towel, then allow them to rest at room temperature for about an hour and a half. (Yup, the recipe really calls for letting raw poultry just sit there on your counter for 90 minutes. We did it, ate the game hen, and lived to tell about it. Similar to this step with the Best Chicken Parmesan, allowing the poultry to dry out at room temperature helps the breading adhere and keeps the meat from drying out when you fry it.)
Mix up the coating ingredients for the breading: 3 cups all-purpose flour, 2 tablespoons garlic powder, 2 tablespoons onion powder, 2 teaspoons each of paprika, cayenne and kosher salt, and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Transfer half of this coating mixture to a second bowl. Into a third bowl, pour 2 cups of buttermilk. Arrange the bowls into a dipping station next to the rack of hen pieces: a bowl of coating, then the bowl of buttermilk, the other bowl of coating, and a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper (for holding the dipped pieces before frying them.)
Working in batches, dredge the game hen thighs and legs through the first bowl of coating until well-coated, then pat off the excess. (You will do the same coating process with the breasts and wings while the thighs and legs are cooking.)
Next dip the hen pieces into the buttermilk, allowing the excess to drip back into the bowl.
And finally, dredge the hen pieces through the second bowl of coating. Place the coated pieces on the cookie sheet.
Use tongs to carefully lower the thighs and legs into a large pot of peanut or canola oil heated to 325 degrees. After a couple of minutes, turn the thigh and leg pieces with the tongs in the oil to ensure that they cook evenly. Fry the thigh and leg pieces until they are cooked through and the breading turns a deep golden brown — about 8-10 minutes. Remove the cooked pieces to a cooling rack, skin-side up. Cook the remaining coated breast and wing pieces the same way, turning as necessary to make sure that they cook evenly. While frying the game hen, monitor the oil to ensure it stays at a consistent temperature.
(An aside about cooking oil — we’ve been hearing a lot about the numerous benefits of cooking with coconut oil and might try frying with it next time. If it’s really as good for you as people say, maybe we don’t have to wait for a special occasion for fried poultry!)
Sprinkle the finished game hen with salt and serve. (Since I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, we really should have put a candle in this pile of fried heaven for me to make my birthday wish.)
We served our game hen with zucchini slaw (another great recipe — especially for summer — coming soon.) But it really doesn’t matter what you serve it with, since this crispy-outside and juicy-inside flavorful delicacy is the star of the meal and will make you wish that every day was your birthday.