The Kitchenless Cook

Choose red or white wine game hens for two on Valentine’s Day

Petite Cornish game hens make an elegant presentation for two.

I have long held the belief that the best wine for any meal is the one that tastes best to you. And as a cook who enjoys experimenting with flavor combinations, many times with items that do not seem well suited for each other, I often enjoy pairing wines that provide a pleasant contrast to the dish. Perhaps try a Pinot with your petrale sole, or a Sauterne with your steak. I am not saying that every combination will work for everybody. It helps to have an open mind and a deep wine cellar.

Most recipes with wine call for “dry white wine” or “red wine,” which isn’t very helpful. Just by the nature of the fermentation process, the majority of wines are considered dry. Even traditionally sweet wines like Gewürztraminer and Johannesburg Riesling are now being made dry. So how do you find the right wine for your recipe?

Here is my first rule of cooking with wine: Always cook with a wine you are willing to drink. I find this helpful because you will rarely use the whole bottle for cooking, so you should be prepared not to waste it.

And as an addendum to that rule, cook with the wine you plan to serve with the dish. Not only do you solve the waste issue, but also you will greatly improve the likelihood that your wine will pair well with your dish.

For my two recipes this month, I used the same main ingredients, game hen and wine, but one was cooked with white wine and the other with red wine. I wanted to show the impact of the different wines by using different cooking methods, and in both cases, the wine acts as a tenderizer.

For the red wine game hens, I wanted the flavor of the wine to make a statement, so I braised the hen. This infused not just the flavor, but also the color of the wine into the bird. When cooking with reds, I usually lean toward a blend. The winemakers will blend the flavors of several varietals to make a smooth, easy-to-drink wine that is ready for your table right now, hence the term, “table wine.” For this recipe, I used Ménage à Trois from Folie à Deux in Napa, a blend of three of my favorite varietals, Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet.

For the white wine game hens, I used the wine as a marinade to help infuse the flavors of the seasonings and then grilled the birds. I used a Sauvignon Blanc from Wildhurst Vineyards, Lake County, for this recipe. Sauvignon Blanc is my preferred choice of white wine when I am cooking, especially for seafood or poultry. It lends a nice citrus flavor to the dish, but does not overpower the flavor of the meat.


Serves 2

  • 1 game hen, split in half
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 sweet onion, sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, sliced
  • 2 cups red table wine
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

Rinse game hen and dry. In a large saucepan, heat olive oil over medium high heat. Add the hens, skin side down and brown about 5 minutes each side. Add onions and peppers to the pan. Cook for 5 minutes. Add wine, basil, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Gently turn over hens and simmer another 20 minutes. Carefully remove from pan, serve and enjoy.


Serves 2

  • 1 game hen, split in half
  • 1 tablespoon rosemary leaves
  • 2 teaspoons thyme
  • 1 teaspoon ground sage
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 cup Sauvignon Blanc
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Rinse game hen, dry, and place in resealable bag. Combine herbs and spices, sprinkle over the bird, and massage into skin. Add wine and oil and seal the bag. Refrigerate for at least one hour and up to overnight.

Grill directly over medium heat, skin side up for 25 minutes. Turn over and grill until skin is a rich, golden brown, approximately 20–25 minutes.

Serve and enjoy.

Editor’s note: A version of this recipe previously appeared in Northside San Francisco.

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