Small game hens are usually found in the frozen food area of the grocery store and need to be defrosted before roasting; allow a couple days for them to thaw slowly in the refrigerator. Their compact size means less brine time needed than with larger birds, which is a bonus. You’ll need a large deep bowl or 2 large resealable plastic bags to brine the birds; you can double the brine if you find you need more to cover them.
4 (1¼-pound) Cornish game hens, rinsed
2 lemons, halved
8 large plus 8 small fresh sage leaves
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons lemon pepper or freshly ground black pepper
9 cups water
3 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1½ teaspoons freshly ground white pepper
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
5 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon minced fresh sage
For the brine, combine the water, salt, Worcestershire sauce, garlic powder and white pepper in a very large bowl or stockpot large enough to hold the game hens. Let sit, whisking occasionally, until the salt is dissolved. Add the game hens, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 12 or up to 24 hours. Turn the hens a few times to be sure they brine evenly.
For the garlic butter, combine the butter, garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, parsley and sage in a small bowl, and stir to thoroughly blend. Refrigerate until ready to serve, but allow the butter to come to room temperature before using. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Drain the hens, discarding the brine. Rinse them under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Place a lemon half in each hen cavity. Rub the large sage leaves between your palms to help release their aroma and add 2 leaves to each hen cavity. Lift the skin on the breasts with your fingers and rub one-quarter of the soft garlic butter between the skin and breast meat of each hen. Slip a small sage leaf into both sides of each hen breast as well. Rub the outside of each hen with the olive oil and sprinkle with the lemon pepper. Tie together the leg ends on each hen with kitchen string. Set the hens in a large roasting pan breast up and roast for 35 minutes. Turn the hens onto their sides and roast for 15 to 20 minutes longer, until the thigh juices run clear when pierced with a knife or an instant read thermometer registers 175 degrees. Transfer the hens to a platter and scoop out the lemon halves. Cover the hens with foil. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving. Set the roasting pan over medium heat and boil 3 to 5 minutes to reduce the cooking juices by half. Squeeze the juice from 2 of the lemon halves and add them to the cooking juices. Use poultry shears or other heavy kitchen shears to halve each bird, cutting first down the center of the breastbone, then down either side of the backbone (discard the backbone). Set the hen halves on individual plates and spoon some of the roasting juices over. Makes 8 servings.