Cornish hens are the brainchild of a Russian engraver. After immigrating to the United States, Jacques Makowsky retired on a farm in Connecticut and, in his later years, set out to breed gourmet poultry. In 1950, he introduced his Cornish game hens, a cross between Plymouth rock hens and Cornish game cocks. Ideally weighing about a pound, the bird is delicate, all-white meat that lends itself to a variety of cooking methods. Chef Emeril Lagasse of The Food Network’s “Emeril Live” suggests smoking them.
Soak chips for smoking. Lagasse suggests apple wood smoking chips, but you can use hickory chips or any other you prefer. Check the labeling; not all smoking chips require soaking first.
Prepare your smoker while your chips are soaking. Lagasse suggests using an indoor smoker and placing a layer of thyme branches on your smoking rack to form a bed for the hens. You can also use an outdoor smoker with a lid. If you use an outdoor smoker, build your fire to the side, away from the portion of the rack where you will place your hens. Lay your soaked chips on top of the coals once they turn white.
Sear your hens in a skillet with 3 tbsp. hot olive oil, then place them in the smoker once the chips begin smoking. If you use an indoor smoker, Lagasse recommends placing the birds on the thyme branches directly over the heat source and the smoking chips. With an outdoor smoker, place your hens away from the fire. Whichever smoker you use, seal it completely.
Smoke your hens for an hour at high heat in an indoor smoker. If you use an outdoor smoker, increase the cooking time to 1 ½ hours. Remove them from your smoker and serve them. If your hens are close to 1 lb. each, they’re an ideal size for one serving per bird.
You can purchase Cornish hens whole and split them yourself so they lay flat in the smoker rack, or you can ask your grocer to remove their backs for you. If you do it yourself, cut along each side of the hen’s backbone to remove it, then flatten the bird by pushing down on it.
If you have concerns about cooking time and want to make sure your hens are fully done, use a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh. They’re ready for serving when the thigh temperature reaches 175 degrees Fahrenheit.