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For a small crowd, try Cornish hens

If you're planning on just a few guests for a home-cooked gathering and don't want to wrestle with a whole turkey or a hunk of beef, try Cornish hens.

They're inexpensive, petite and make for a nice presentation. And because they are small, they cook quickly.

You will typically find hens sold frozen and wrapped individually with two to a package. Thaw them in the microwave or overnight in the refrigerator. If you choose microwave thawing, they need to be cooked immediately.

One whole hen weighs 1 to 1 1/4 pounds. There is a small amount of meat to bone with Cornish hens, so plan on one per person for a generous serving.

If you'd like to split them in half for two servings, the easiest way is to turn them over so they are breast side down. Using a good pair of kitchen shears, cut along each side of the backbone to remove it completely.

Turn the hen back to breast side up and cut it in half along the breast bone. Or slightly press down on the breasts to flatten. This will help them cook more evenly.

Cornish hens are best oven-roasted, or you can grill them. Because these don't spend a lot of time in the oven, they generally stay moist and don't dry out.

If you want to guarantee they will be moist, brine them first. Soak them in a basic brine of 3/4 cup salt and 1/4 cup sugar dissolved in a gallon of water in a pot large enough to hold the liquid and four small hens. Brine them 4 to 6 hours in the refrigerator.

Drain and rinse well before roasting. Pat dry and place on a rimmed platter back in the refrigerator for 1 hour before roasting.

You can season and flavor these little hens as you would a whole chicken. Today's recipe calls for a basting sauce made with orange marmalade, pineapple juice and few other seasonings. You can substitute apricot preserves for the marmalade if desired. Be sure to reserve some of the basting sauce.

In this recipe, the hens are roasted with peeled, whole shallots and whole bulbs of garlic. Roasting the shallots and garlic brings out their sweet flavor. Serve the roasted shallots as a side with the hens. After roasting, the garlic should be soft. Squeeze the garlic from the cloves and spread on slices of crusty bread.

>Roasted Cornish Hens

For Basting Sauce:

1/2 cup orange marmalade

1/4 cup pineapple juice

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce

2 tablespoons honey

Salt and pepper to taste

For Hens

6 Cornish hens (about 1 1/4 pounds each), preferably without giblets, thawed

12 shallots, peeled but left whole

3 whole bulbs garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil

In a blender, combine all of the basting sauce ingredients. Divide the sauce among two bowls; set aside.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. While the oven is preheating, rinse the hens inside and out with cold water and pat dry. Place on a large, foil-lined jelly-roll pan or broiler pan. Peel the shallots but leave whole. Remove some of the papery skin of the garlic and cut about 1/4 -inch off the top of the bulbs. Toss the shallots with the olive oil and brush the cut side of the garlic with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the shallots and garlic around the hens.

Set aside about 1/3 cup of the basting sauce for serving.

Brush the hens with some of the sauce, place in the oven and roast about 45 minutes to 1 hour, basting every 15 minutes with more sauce and rotating the pan to ensure even doneness. Hens are done when juices run clear, the skin is golden brown and the internal temperature is 165 degrees in the thickest part of the breast.

Remove the hens from the oven, let rest a few minutes, baste again before serving with 1/3 cup of the reserved sauce and serve whole or carve as desired. Serve the shallots on the side; spread the garlic on crusty bread.

Serves: 6 (generous servings)

(From and tested by Susan M. Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.)

Analysis based on a 6-ounce serving with skin: 502 calories (47 percent from fat), 26g fat (7g saturated fat), 24g carbohydrates, 42g protein, 329mg sodium, 129mg cholesterol, trace of fiber.