My love of turkey is only a recent development. And even at that, I only consent to eat it when it's freshly roasted, usually on Thanksgiving. Anything else—turkey sandwiches, turkey soups, turkey whatevers—just aren't going to happen. So I have a high sensitivity to those who want to try something other than turkey for Thanksgiving.
To me, these Quatre Épices Poussins are the perfect holiday bird. Something about Thanksgiving requires a bird, and I feel compelled to uphold that. But sometimes you want something smaller to alleviate leftover overflow in your apartment fridge, or something quick-cooking to disguise the fact that you were actually at work until two hours before your mother-in-law arrived, or something different from what you had last year. Tradition, after all, isn't for everyone. These young chickens are holiday poultry that cook quickly, are perfect for one (you can portion it for an army or a sweet dinner for two), are entirely unique, and have tremendous stage presence.
The stage presence comes from a traditional French spice blend called quatre épices, or four spices. Consisting of cracked black pepper, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg, the blend is reminiscent of rich medieval dinners, centered around a great long table on which a roasted pig reclines, clenching an apple in its mouth. Highly spiced, and lightly spicy, it is a seasonal je ne sais quoi that makes these little crispy-skinned, succulent game birds special enough, and festive enough, for the holidays.
- 2 poussins, backbone removed and butterflied
- 2 1/2 teaspoons quatre épices (ingredients follow)
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- For the Quatre Épices:
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground clove
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Make the quatre épices by combining all four spices.
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Pat the poussins dry with paper towel, and season them well with salt.
Mix 2 1/2 teaspoons quatre épices with 3 tablespoons room temperature butter. Using your hands, spread the butter in a thick layer over the front side of the birds.
In a braising pan, heat the vegetable oil on medium heat.
When the oil is hot, place the poussins skin side down in the pan, and weight them down with one brick well wrapped in foil. Sear for 3 to 4 minutes, then transfer to the oven.
Bake the poussins in this position, breast side down under the brick, for 30 minutes. Then remove the bricks, and roast them breast side up for 20 minutes. Then rotate them again so that they are breast side down, and replace the bricks for the final 10 minutes. The poussins will cook for 1 hour in total.
Allow the poussins to rest 5 to 10 minutes before serving.