Roasted Cornish Hens with Wild Rice & Butternut Squash Stuffing & Maple-Pear Cranberry Sauce

T minus 7 days til Thanksgiving, people! Are you guys ready? I know I am. Thanksgiving is pretty typically a low-stress holiday for us here. We just keep the focus on having fun, being together and food, food, food! My menu rarely changes and looks a lot like the one I grew up eating as a kid. Buttery roast turkey and gravy, stuffing, a killer sweet potato casserole that is usually everyone's favorite dish, mashed potatoes, rolls, homemade cranberry sauce, my mom's deviled eggs, fruit salad, and maybe some steamed green beans. Almost every single year the meal is exactly the same. It's kind of ironic because in our house every other day of the year we rarely eat the same meal twice, but Thanksgiving? Call me an uber-traditionalist I just have a very specific meal in my head when it comes to holidays. I think it comes from a deeply-rooted reverence for my own family holiday traditions. And all my inherent holiday spirit I credit to my mother, she was so amazing at making things special and full of holiday cheer for us growing up, and it's the example I go by now that I have a family of my own. ♥

Well just because I am a stickler when it comes to changing up the Thanksgiving meal on the big day, doesn't mean I don't have all the love in the world for other holiday dishes! And one of the perks of being a food blogger is that I can theoretically make as many holiday meals as I want, and that's not a bad gig, I tell ya!

I love the idea of making Cornish hens for the holidays, each guest gets their own little meal parcel and it comes in handy especially if you are having a smaller gathering. They cook quickly rather than having the main course be an all day affair. And the wild rice stuffing can be made completely in advance and just heated in the microwave the next day before stuffing the hens.

I think of this entire meal, my favorite things has to be the maple-pear cranberry sauce. A spin on traditional cranberry sauce, I replaced half the regular white sugar with maple syrup, which lends a buttery and rich quality to the cranberries. And after the cranberries are about halfway cooked I added a couple of peeled and diced Anjou pears, as well as  a strip of lemon peel, a pinch of ground clove and a few grinds of fresh black pepper to flavor and tie it all together. This cranberry sauce really blew me away! So much so that I am thinking about breaking with tradition (!?!) and making this the cranberry sauce that I add to my Thanksgiving table this year.

 Roasted Cornish Hens with Wild Rice & Butternut Squash Stuffing & Maple-Pear Cranberry Sauce
 serves 4

*important note: You want to be sure that your stuffing is very warm before you stuff the hens. Otherwise your hens will finish cooking before the stuffing comes up to a safe temperature. I just throw it in the microwave for a couple of minutes before hand. 

for the wild rice stuffing:
2 c. low-sodium chicken broth, plus 1/4 c. additional broth for moistening the stuffing in the casserole dish
1 c. wild rice, rinsed and drained
2 bay leaves 
2 c. 1/4-inch diced butternut squash
1 T. vegetable oil
1/2 lb. pork sausage (I used regular breakfast-style sausage)
1 T. unsalted butter 
1 small onion, chopped fine
2 celery ribs, chopped
1 t. minced fresh thyme
1 t. minced fresh sage
3 T. minced fresh parsley
1/3 c. chopped, lightly toasted pecans
1 T. maple syrup
2 t. lemon juice
salt & pepper

for the shallot & herb butter:
4 T. unsalted butter, softened
1 T. minced shallot
1/2 t. minced fresh thyme
1/2 t. minced fresh sage
1/4 t. salt
1/8 t. ground black pepper

for the maple-pear cranberry sauce:
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. maple syrup
1/2 c. water
1/4 t. salt
12 oz. package fresh cranberries, rinsed and sorted through
2-inch strip of lemon peel
pinch of ground clove
a few grinds of black pepper
2 ripe Anjou pears, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch pieces

4 Cornish hens, patted dry

1. In a medium saucepan, combine 2 c. broth, wild rice and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low and simmer until the rice is tender, about 45-55 minutes. Drain rice and add to a large bowl.

2. Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until the oil is shimmering. Add the diced butternut squash, cook, stirring occasionally until the squash is lightly caramelized and softened, 5-7 minutes. Add the squash to the bowl with the rice. Reduce the heat in the skillet to medium, add the sausage, cook, stirring frequently, breaking the sausage in to very small pieces, until the sausage is browned and caramelized, add to the bowl with the squash and rice.

3.To the skillet, add 1 T. butter, the celery and onion. Cook until the vegetables are tender and browned around the edges, 7-10 minutes. Add to the bowl of rice, along with the thyme, sage, parsley, 1 T. maple syrup, lemon juice and salt & pepper to taste.

4. In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients for the shallot and herb butter.

5. Heat oven to 425 degrees f. Spray a wire rack set over a sheet pan with nonstick spray. Using your fingers, carefully separate the skin covering the breast from the meat, spread 1/2 T. of the flavored butter under the skin. Tuck the wings behind the backs and spoon the stuffing into the cavity of each hen. Make sure your stuffing is hot before spooning it into the Cornish hens. Tie the legs together using kitchen twine. Place the stuffed and tied hens on the prepared baking sheet. Melt the remaining flavored butter and brush over the hens. Place the hens in the oven and pour a little water in the bottom of the baking sheet to prevent the drippings from burning in the pan. Bake until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the breast registers 170 degrees f. and the stuffing is 165 degrees f., about 50-60 minutes.  Add the remaining stuffing to a buttered casserole dish, drizzle with the remaining 1/4 c. chicken broth, cover with foil and bake alongside the hens.

6. While the hens roast, make the cranberry sauce. Combine all of the cranberry sauce ingredients except for the pears in a nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Simmer for 5 minutes, add the pears and simmer for 5 more minutes. Let cool at least to room temperature before serving alongside the roasted, stuffed hens. 

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