As I mentioned before, I have a long history with Andy Ricker's roasted young chicken (or game hen). It was one of my favorite dinners back when I lived in Portland, and I still fantasize about driving up to the Northwest just for another taste. Luckily, now I don't need to spend the gas money (or wait in line). The dish is featured prominently in Ricker's new Pok Pok cookbook, and it's surprisingly easy to make.
Why I picked this recipe: I hadn't had this dish since leaving Portland almost 5 years ago, so it would have been a shame not to recreate it.
What worked: Despite the long ingredient list and recipe, this was actually an easy dish to prepare and the final result tasted remarkably like the the game hens I ate back in college.
What didn't: No problems here.
Suggested tweaks: You could probably adjust the cooking times in the recipe and use a single chicken instead of the two game hens if necessary.
Reprinted with permission from Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand by Andy Ricker with JJ Goode. Copyright 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. Available wherever books are sold.
- 2 Cornish game hens or poussins (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds each), rinsed inside and out
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 1/4 cup superfine sugar
- 10 cups tepid water
- 5 or 6 unpeeled garlic cloves
- 1 teaspoon white peppercorns
- A thumb-size hunk of unpeeled ginger, coarsely sliced against the grain
- 1 large unpeeled stalk lemongrass, cut into 2-inch lengths
- A small handful cilantro stems, preferably with roots attached, torn in half
- 2 or 3 whole green onions, torn in half
- 3 large stalks lemongrass, outer layer, bottom 1/2 inch, and top 4 inches removed
- 3 3/4 ounces unpeeled garlic cloves, halved lengthwise (about 3/4 cup)
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 2 ounces thinly sliced cilantro stems (about 1/2 cup)
- 2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons Thai thin soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons water
- Basting Liquids
- A couple tablespoons Naam Man Hom Daeng (Fried-Shallot Oil)
- 1/4 cup honey mixed well with 2 tablespoons hot water
- Recommended Dipping Sauces
- Naam Jim Kai (Sweet chile dipping sauce)
- Naam Jim Kai Yaang (Tamarind dipping sauce)
Brine the birds: Whisk the salt and sugar with the 10 cups of tepid water in a large mixing bowl or pot until the sugar and salt fully dissolve. Combine the garlic, peppercorns, ginger, and lemongrass in a mortar and lightly pound to bruise and slightly crush them. Add them along with the cilantro and green onions to the brine, then add the birds breast side down. If they float, weigh them down with a plate. If the birds still aren’t completely submerged, choose a different container. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or, even better, overnight.
Make the stuffing and stuff the birds: Remove the birds, discarding the brine, and sit them ass down in a colander to drain.
Cut the lemongrass crosswise (tough parts, too) into rough 1/8-inch slices. Firmly pound it in a granite mortar until it’s very fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the garlic and pound to break it into small pieces (you’re not making a paste), about 20 seconds. Add the salt and pepper, pound briefly, then add the cilantro stems and pound to bruise them, about 10 seconds more.
Divide the stuffing equally among the birds’ cavities, set the birds breast side up on a plate (or even better, a rack set over a tray) so there’s some space between them. Tuck each wing tip under the body. Put the birds in the fridge, uncovered, to dry out for at least 4 hours or up to 12 hours.
Marinate the birds: Stir the fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and pepper in a small bowl along with the 2 tablespoons of water until the sugar is fully dissolved. Brush the birds with the marinade, then put them back, uncovered, into the fridge for about 2 hours.
Cook the birds on the grill (highly recommended): Prepare a charcoal grill to cook at 350°F to 375°F. If your grill doesn’t have a firebox, which allows for easy indirect cooking, push the coals to one side of the grill and form them into a mound. Add the birds, breasts up, to the grill rack opposite the charcoal, and cover the grill, opening the vents and rotating the grill cover if possible so the vents are directly over the birds. Positioning the open vents above the birds will pull the charcoal smoke toward them, giving them a little more smoky flavor. While you cook, you’ll have to add more charcoal as necessary to maintain the temperature.
Cook for 25 minutes, flip the birds over to get some color on the other side, and after about 5 minutes more, flip the birds over again.
If you’re not cooking on a grill with a firebox, carefully remove the birds and the grill grate. Spread out the coals so that instead of mound, they’re lying in one or two layers, still on one side of the grill. Return the grate and the birds to the grill.
Continue cooking, covered, with the birds on the side opposite the coals. After 5 minutes, brush the birds all over with the shallot oil and re-cover. After 5 minutes more, brush the birds all over with the honey mixture and move them so they’re directly over the coals. Keep cooking, covered, turning over and rotating the birds as necessary to achieve even browning and brushing occasionally with the honey mixture, until the skin is a slightly glossy golden brown with some dark patches and the juices of the thigh run clear, 5 to 10 minutes more, depending on the size of the bird.
In the oven: Move the oven rack to the bottom third of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Put the birds breast side up on a baking tray (or even better, a rack set over a tray or roasting pan).
Roast the birds for 30 minutes. Rotate the pan and brush the birds all over with the shallot oil. Cook for 5 minutes more, then brush the birds all over with the honey mixture. Crank up the heat to 400°F. Check on the birds every 5 minutes, brushing them with the honey mixture, until the skin is a slightly glossy golden brown with some darker patches and the juices run clear when you pierce the thickest part of the thigh, about 10 minutes more, depending on the size of the bird.
Rest and carve the birds: Let the birds rest for at least 10 minutes or up to 30 minutes. Serve them whole or carved—it’s up to you—with the dipping sauces. At Pok Pok, we halve the birds lengthwise, then remove the hindquarters and separate them into drumsticks and thighs, remove the wings, and chop the breast portions through the bone into two or three pieces.