One-Pot Cornish Game Hens with Mushroom-Barley Pilaf: a perfect Date Night dinner or Holiday Dinner for two.
How Date Night became “a thing”
Between kids, work, and running a household, it’s easy to get caught up in a dizzying whirl and lose sight of the fundamental relationship that makes it all work: you and your partner.
That’s why Phil and I decided to have date night once a week: to take a step back, take a deep breath, and give each other our full attention.
What to eat on Date Night?
Although we sometimes eat out, far more often we eat a special meal at home. This has become something we start fantasizing about several days in advance.
“What should we have for dinner?”
Our list of Date Night dinners typically includes dishes that we used to eat out at restaurants, but have since mastered and improved upon at home. For example, Thai Green Curry, Slow-Cooker Mojo Carnitas, Date Night Prime Rib (with decadent open-faced prime rib sandwiches the next day!), Pantry Linguine with Clam Sauce, and Bun Bo Xao are just a few of our globe-trotting Date Night favorites.
And now for something completely different…
Herb-Roasted Cornish Game Hens: the idea for a one-pot date night dinner
Until about a month ago, I’d only had Cornish Game Hens once before in my life. I remember the “wow factor” of having my own entire bird on a plate. Strangely though, I don’t remember how it tasted.
Then my local provisions store had a raging sale on Cornish game hens. I remembered that feeling and decided to create a recipe with these nifty little birds to really make Date Night pop.
The Mushroom-Barley Pilaf
I also wanted an extra-special side dish that would not only pair with my Cornish game hens, but would also work in a one-pot format. Rice just seemed too…meh. Mushroom-barley pilaf was something I’ve been thinking about for a while, so this seemed like fate.
Disclaimer: if you don’t like mushrooms, you’re not going to like this pilaf.
I like to think of this as a “double mushroom pilaf” because I use fresh baby portabella mushrooms and minced, rehydrated porcinis. AND I use the strained rehydrating liquid as the broth for cooking the barley. This broth brings a wonderful earthy, meaty flavor that is absolutely incomparable (in my book, at least).
A quick nutrition/science geek note: barley has a much lower glycemic index than rice. This means that it elevates your blood sugar slowly and steadily, compared to the rapid spikes and crashes of high-glycemic-index foods.
Making One-Pot Cornish Game Hens with Mushroom-Barley Pilaf
Preparing the Cornish game hens
Rinse the hens off and pat them completely dry with paper toweling. Drying is very important, or the hens won’t brown up properly during the roast. I give them at least half an hour to come up to room temperature. Then I pat the hens dry again (if needed).
Salt and pepper the cavity and then stuff with lemon wedges, herbs, and shallot. Then give the hens a rub-down with softened butter. You can mix minced herbs in with your butter, but I simply set herb sprigs on top of the hens and remove them during the last part of the roast.
Preparing the Mushroom-Barley Pilaf
Plan ahead so that your mushrooms can soak for 45 or so minutes to completely rehydrate. Then, remove the mushrooms from the liquid, rinse carefully, dry with a paper towel, and mince. The rehydrating liquid will have some grit from the dried mushrooms: run the liquid through a paper towel-lined strainer.
The good news? You can prep the porcini mushrooms and broth the night before.
I like some chew/texture to my barley pilaf, so I don’t pre-soak the barley. If you prefer a completely soft texture, you can soak the barley overnight and drain it before use.
Cooking the mushroom-barley pilaf starts out much like an Italian risotto. You sauté the shallots, mushrooms, and barley in a little olive oil (porcini oil, if you have it!) until you get a nutty, toasty fragrance. Then you add in some wine and stir while it absorbs into the barley and reduces.
Unlike risotto, we now add all of the broth at once because the pilaf will absorb the liquid and finish cooking as the Cornish game hens roast.
Assembling the dish for roasting
After adding the broth, I set a small, circular wire rack into the bottom of the pot so the hens can sit on top and a little bit above the pilaf (see preparation collage below). After setting the hens onto the rack, loosely cover them with herb sprigs and set the pot into the oven.
The hens need to come up to 165º, which you can check by inserting an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh (or, better yet, monitor continuously with a digital thermometer). Depending on your oven and the size of your birds, this can take anywhere from an hour to an hour and twenty minutes.
I like to start checking at 50 minutes so I can also assess the degree of browning and adjust if needed. For example, cover the hens with foil if they’re too brown. Alternatively, you can turn on the broiler for the last five minutes or so of roasting if they’re not brown enough.
Here are a few highlights of the cooking process for One-Pot Cornish Game Hens with Mushroom-Barley Pilaf:
When the birds have reached an internal temperature of 165º (I check the thighs of both birds), I pull them out and let them rest for at least 10 minutes. Meanwhile, I remove the rack from the pot, fluff the mushroom-barley pilaf, and cover the pot while the hens finish resting.
To serve, I like to put the hens back into the pot atop the mushroom-barley pilaf. I garnish with more fresh herbs, and presto! It’s a really impressive presentation just like that!
Cornish game hens are a generous portion for one person. With a couple of side dishes, you could serve each person a half-hen and save the rest for later (or serve four people instead of two). The Mushroom-Barley Pilaf is also about 4 servings on its own.
If you’re having a Thanksgiving, Christmas, or other holiday dinner for a small group (say 6–8), you could double this recipe and serve half-hens with the pilaf and a vegetable side-dish (for example, arugula-shaved-fennel salad would be a perfect pairing).
If you’re feeding a bigger crowd for Thanksgiving or Christmas Dinner, be sure to check out my Work-Ahead Thanksgiving Dinner Meal Plan. This plan includes a printable shopping list and game plan for delivering a delicious turkey dinner with all the sides like a champ.
And that’s all there is to it! A simple, yet elegant dish that’s perfect for just about any special occasion. I hope you love it!
P.S. If you like one-pot meals, be sure to check out my how-to article, Mastering Easy One-Pot Meal Recipes!
I’m sharing my recipe for Cornish Game Hens with Mushroom-Barley Pilaf at:
- #CookBlogShare, a great food blogger recipe-share at Recipes Made Easy.
- #CookOnceEatTwice, for recipes that are just as good left-over as they are when you made them, hosted by Searching for Spice.
- Delicious Dishes Recipe Party, hosted by Walking on Sunshine.
One-Pot Cornish Game Hens with Mushroom-Barley Pilaf
FOR THE CORNISH GAME HENS
- 2 Cornish game hens
- 1/3 cup unsalted butter - softened
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper - freshly ground
- 15 herb sprigs - (sage, rosemary, savory, and thyme, for example. This number is approximate: you should have enough sprigs to loosely cover each bird, stick a couple in the cavity, and garnish the finished dish; or see Recipe Note #1)
- 1 lemon - quartered
- 1 shallot - halved
FOR THE MUSHROOM-BARLEY PILAF
- 1/2 cup shallot - finely minced
- 4 oz cremini mushrooms - trimmed and chopped into small dice
- 1/3 cup dried porcini mushrooms - rehydrated and finely minced (see Recipe Note #2)
- 3/4 cup pearl barley - rinsed (see Recipe Note #3)
- 1 tbsp porcini oil - (or use extra virgin olive oil)
- 1/4 tsp kosher salt - (or to taste)
- 1/4 tsp black pepper - freshly ground
- 1/4 cup white wine
- 3 cups vegetable broth - (preferably the liquid used to rehydrate the porcini mushrooms; see Recipe Note #2)
- Remove the giblet packet (if present) from the cavity of the game hens. Carefully rinse the game hens under cold water. Thoroughly pat dry with paper toweling. Let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Set a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 375º. Make sure that the hens are completely dry: if not, pat dry again with paper toweling. Sprinkle some of the salt and pepper (about 1/8 tsp of each for each bird) into the cavities of the game hens. Stuff 1 lemon quarter, 1/2 shallot, and 2 herb sprigs into each cavity. Mix the remaining salt and pepper into the butter and rub all over the hens. Set hens aside.
- Set a large, heavy-bottomed, oven-safe skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat and add the porcini oil (or olive oil). Add the shallots, fresh mushrooms, barley, salt, and pepper. Sauté until the vegetables have softened slightly and the barley begins to give off a nutty, toasted fragrance, 5–7 minutes. Bring the heat to high while stirring and add the wine. Continue stirring until about half of the wine has been absorbed/reduced. Stir in the vegetable broth and rehydrated mushrooms. Remove from the heat.
- Set a small rack into the bottom of the pot (see Recipe Note #4). Place the hens on top of the rack (balance them against the sides of the pot, if necessary).
- Place the pot on the oven's middle rack and roast for 50 minutes, turning the pot 180º (a half turn) once during the roast.
- Check the temperature of the hens by inserting an instant-read thermometer into the meatiest part of the thigh: the final temperature must reach 165º. Continue roasting as needed. Also take note of the degree of browning: if the hens are browning too much underneath the herbs, cover them with a piece of foil. If they are not browning enough, remove the herb sprigs and turn the broiler on high for the last ~5 minutes of cooking (estimate based on the temperature of the thigh meat). Watch carefully to prevent burning and give the pot a half-turn once during the broil.
- Remove the hens to a cutting board and rest for 10 minutes. Remove the rack from the pot and fluff the mushroom-barley pilaf with a rice paddle or fork. Return the game hens to the pot, if you'd like, and serve garnished with additional herb sprigs.
- You can also mix your favorite Italian dried herb mix with the butter, salt, and pepper.
- To rehydrate the mushrooms, bring 3 1/2 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan. Add the mushrooms, turn off the heat, and lid the saucepan. Let sit for 45 minutes. Remove the rehydrated mushrooms (reserve the liquid in the saucepan!). Rinse well, then pat dry with paper toweling before mincing. Strain the rehydrating liquid through a strainer lined with a layer of paper toweling. Keep this liquid to use for the vegetable broth.
- Don't use quick-cooking barley. This method yields a barley pilaf with a bit of texture and chew, which is how we prefer it. If you like your barley to be completely soft, soak it overnight, then drain well and proceed with the recipe.
- For best results, the game hens should be sitting slightly above the level of the liquid. I used the rack insert from a pressure cooker/instant pot and set the hens on top, balanced against the sides of the pot. (See photo in preparation collage in the post above)