Salt-Encrusted Game Hens with Parsnip Gnocchi in Meyer Lemon Cream Sauce
Last night’s dinner was really a mouthful. So many different elements played off eachother to compose each tasty bite it was hard to keep from shoving it all in at warp speed. First let me talk about the mmmlicious Meyer lemons. The blogosphere is Meyer lemon-mad right now; everyone and their Nana is using them in everything from curds to pannacotta, limoncello to lemonade. It’s easy to understand why, the little hybrid sweet tart buggers couldn’t be more delicious right now at this moment AKA go out and buy some Meyer lemons if you haven’t already. I have purchased them to excess, so last night’s dinner was to be about combining elements in which a Meyer lemon cream sauce would work. Making it was straightforward enough- sautee some shallots, oregano and zest in butter, add and reduce white wine, bring it on home with the addition of heavy cream, and adjust seasonings with lotsa Meyer lemon juice and a little salt and pepper. Make the sauce last, it only takes ten minutes to come together.
I set out for the market yesterday morning intending to buy chickens as I’m about outta chicken stock and need to make more. I came home with game hens, though, because the little buggers looked up at me all cute-like and said “Buy me, Linda, we’ve never been frozen, ran free when we were alive and come from a farm not 20 minutes from here. Let us meet our fate in your tasty kitchen, pretty please?” They had me at hello, plus dinner was only for four, so why not salt-encrust some game hens? Then I could use their little carcasses to make a rich stock, plus it’s kind of fun to serve guests an individual bird all to themselves.
I had some salt that needed using too, we made quite a big batch of it last time we went out seawater collecting and we’re planning a new collection mission soon, so I used some homemade sea salt to form the base of the game hen crust. I like to do salt crusts because I love salt, but also because believe it or not, the salt crust keeps the meat inside so nice and tender it just falls off the carcass like melted butter. Making a salt crust is easy, I’ll give you the ratio for one game hen, obviously for four, or a chicken, you’ll want to increase accordingly. Mix four beaten egg whites with one pound of salt and 1.5c flour. Add water until a medium-tacky dough is formed. (You can add herbs too- they infuse flavor. I used oregano since it’s taking over my garden right now and is so fresh)
To encrust the bird, first stuff ‘em and truss ‘em. I stuff’ em with half a lemon, half a shallot and a bunch of oregano. Truss so that no pointy wings or legs puncture your crust. Lay a base of crust on a jellyroll pan lined with parchment. Be sure the base is slightly larger than the bird, then set the bird on the crust. Pack the remaining dough all around the bird, taking care not to leave any holes where moisture can escape. Immediately put the bird into a 400° oven and cook for 15 minutes for the crust to solidify, then reduce heat to 350° and bake until an internal thermometer probe reads 160°. Remove the bird from the oven, but do not remove crust- bird will continue to cook for another half hour or so since the crust acts as an oven. When you are ready to serve, either remove the crust yourself or let the guest do it himself at the table for a more dramatic presentation.
I knew that my little game hens would do well with a lemon sauce, so I wanted a starch that could handle it as well since encrusting the bird means you get no gravy as the crust soaks up the cooking jus. My mind often leans toward gnocchi; it’s one of nature’s perfect foods. Because the Meyer lemons have a touch of sweetness, however, I wanted to soften the starchiness of typical potato gnocchi. Parsnips proved the perfect addition since they are a touch sweet themselves. I used a ratio of 1/3 parsnips to 2/3 potato and it was just right. I’m not sure I’ll make plane ol’ potato gnocchi again anytime soon- try it with parsnip and you’ll see why. I cooked my potatoes and parsnips sous vide before milling them with my potato ricer. Sous vide is perfect for gnocchi as boiling potatoes leaves too much residual water and makes for a gloppy texture, whereas sous vide doesn’t add any water, but nor does it take any away like baking can, often resulting in overly dry gnocchi. If I didn’t have a Sous Vide Supreme I would cook the potatoes and parsnips by first boiling, then baking them before ricing.
After the potatoes are milled into even texture, I add a touch of salt, some microplaned Parmigiano Reggiano, and I start adding flour. The general ratio of flour to potato matter is 1/3-2/3, but I do this by feel. You know you have enough flour when the dough doesn’t stick to your hands any longer and you can break off clumps and roll it into tubes without it leaving goo all over the counter. Once you roll the tubes ¾” thick, cut them into ¾” pieces. At this point you can brand them with the tines of a fork if you are using a thin sauce that you want to adhere to the noodle better, but in the case of my cream sauce I wasn’t worried, so I didn’t brand them since I think they look prettier unadorned. Cook them in gently boiling salted water until they float to the top, then remove them with a slotted spoon and keep them in a pan in a warming oven with a little butter to prevent them from sticking to one another. You can start the lemon cream sauce when you’re halfway through cooking the gnocchi and your timing should be right. Serve both the game hens and the gnocchi with the cream sauce drizzled over the top.