Table for One

A Garlicky, Gingery Chicken Soup for the Solo Soul

Table for One columnist Eric Kim makes a case for the Cornish game hen, an oft forgotten supermarket poultry.

February 21, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog.

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.

In 1949, a fire wiped out a flock of African guinea hens that Alphonsine "Therese" Makowsky and her husband were raising and selling. To replenish their stock, Therese turned instead to Cornish chickens, whose meatiness she had read about in a book and wanted to try breeding herself, and White Plymouth Rock hens, which were favorable for their all-white meat—not to mention their petite, single-serving size. And thus, the perfect cross-bred bird, both meaty and petite, was born.

Most people don't even notice these little chickens at the grocery store today. Like many vintage trends, the Cornish game hen—beloved by the restaurant industry due to its elfinness and ultra-tender flesh—seems to have all but gone out of fashion. Why buy these little birds when there are boneless, skinless breasts and thighs and whole broiler chickens to be had?

But a Cornish game hen is the best “cut” of poultry for a solo portion of soup. Once boiled with fresh ginger and a fat handful of garlic, its flesh becomes meltingly tender (yes, even the breast meat) and the broth rich, fortified, and full of chickeny flavor. There’s something to be said for cooking an animal whole; you get depth from the bones and a richness from the skin and cartilage that you just can’t get from chicken breasts alone.

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Top Comment:
“Hi there! I haven't tried this yet myself. But I think you could just follow the recipe to a T and pressure-cook for, say, 30 minutes on high? And yes, the hen will always come out heavenly; it's almost allergic to dryness. :) As for the water, I'd use about 2 cups or so; the rest of the vegetables should release their own liqueur during the IP process. -E”
— Eric K.

I never ate chicken breasts growing up. But we did have Cornish game hens—and had them often. Inspired by samgyetang—a Korean dish of glutinous rice–stuffed poussin (young chicken) rapidly boiled with garlic, ginseng, and jujubes (Chinese red dates)—I decided to stuff this week's Table for One recipe, as well. As the chicken boils, the white rice cooks into a sticky, compact stuffing that’s easily my favorite part of the dish (even more than the broth and the meat).

A Cornish game hen fits snugly in its saucepan with garlic and ginger. Photo by ROCKY LUTEN. PROP STYLIST: BROOKE DEONARINE. FOOD STYLIST: ANNA BILLINGSKOG.

A step that’s extra but worth doing here is slow-frying one thinly sliced shallot (the ideal allium, in my book, for its single-portion size). As the Cornish game hen bubbles away on one burner, the little shallot rings crisp up on another. Using a slotted spoon, I drain the fried shallots to garnish the bird later—and into the aromatic oil, I stir some salt and white pepper to use as a dipping sauce for the chicken meat.

Ready-ground white pepper is key here, as I love its mild, musty flavor against the soft Cornish game hen.

And though I feel awful that all those African guinea hens were lost in the Makowskys’ fire, I’m forever grateful for the innovation that was cross-bred from such scarcity. There’s nothing like coming home after a long winter’s day and bubbling up a single game for yourself and for yourself alone.

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Eric Kim is a senior editor at Food52, where his solo dining column, Table for One, runs Friday mornings. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.


Mary-Ann March 15, 2020
Love this post, Eric. Comfort food is like a warm hug during these uncertain times. Your chicken soup reminds me of two Filipino soups I grew up with: One is the Chicken Mami, which is like what you made, with less ginger but still with the garlic and shallots, and some thin noodles added at the end. The other is the Chicken Tinola, which is the garlicky, shalloty, and less gingery chicken soup with patola, a gourd that is peeled and cut to smaller pieces.
KLS March 9, 2020
I just found your blog, and I'm thrilled! Thanks for your fine writing and cooking.
A question: how do you (or do you) skim the foam?
jasmine March 1, 2020
I made three portions of this soup this morning (sorry) and it was comfort food at its best. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to tackle samgetang with ginseng and all, but you made the recipe accessible for someone who came to the US as a child and didn’t grow up around Koreans. This evening, a Japanese friend of mine tasted the soup and said it was the best soup she’d ever had, so kudos to you even though I took credit for your ingenuity.
Author Comment
Eric K. March 2, 2020
Why are you sorry! That sounds amazing. Thank you so much for making it. x
jasmine March 2, 2020
Sorry because I put three Cornish into a big pot after reading all that information on how this dish ought to be cooked for one person with a single Cornish hen. My big pot with three hens wasn’t as pretty but it still tasted great.
Author Comment
Eric K. March 2, 2020
Ha! No, as long as each person got their own hen. Your stock was probably even richer and better because of the three.
Linda V. February 23, 2020
On the journey to get the ingredients for this dinner!
Author Comment
Eric K. February 25, 2020
Let me know how it goes!
Linda V. February 26, 2020
Found the hens. So cute,just the right size. Next time I will add carrot slices, maybe top with green onions. Love your recipes!
Author Comment
Eric K. February 27, 2020
I'm so glad, Linda. Thanks for reporting back.
Denise February 23, 2020
Literally last night we were lamenting how impossible it is to find Cornish game hens any everyone else finding them in their towns? I can only find them the Asian grocery year round (mangled and freezer burnt) and around holidays at my nice store. In Portland OR
Mhebert February 25, 2020
It pains me but I pick mine up at Walmart
Author Comment
Eric K. February 25, 2020
Very interesting. Mhebert, where do you live? At least for me, growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, there were plenty of Cornish game hens in the poultry sections of all the grocery stores—high and low. Wouldn't be surprised, though, if all of that changed in the last 10 years. Though on a recent visit home, my mom and I made samgyetang from a couple Kroger hens we found.
Mhebert February 25, 2020
I live in Newport News, Va. Their comment was quite surprising as I have been buying my hens there for years. I'm glad I found your column. I am relatively recently separated and sometimes have difficulty cooking for one instead of three!
Author Comment
Eric K. February 26, 2020
Welcome to the good life, friend.
Susanna March 1, 2020
I can find them (NYC), but they are so dang expensive (I’d say at least $10 or $12 each) that it’s hard to justify buying one vs. buying a package of chicken thighs.
garlic&lemon February 21, 2020
This sounds wonderful! I like chicken soup, but I don't like it enough to eat it for 5 days. I'm going to try the cornish hen variation this week! I do have to add, as a fellow InstantPot fanatic, that I am disappointed that you did not provide the InstantPot variation! Does the little hen overcook? Does the white meat overcook? Or does it come out heavenly? I'm depending on you, Eric.
Author Comment
Eric K. February 23, 2020
Hi there! I haven't tried this yet myself. But I think you could just follow the recipe to a T and pressure-cook for, say, 30 minutes on high? And yes, the hen will always come out heavenly; it's almost allergic to dryness. :) As for the water, I'd use about 2 cups or so; the rest of the vegetables should release their own liqueur during the IP process. -E