Gather Together

By Abigail Crayne

Spending more time around the table with friends and family is a goal for many of us, especially throughout the fall and holiday season. However, finding time to plan and prepare can be a formidable challenge. Having an approachable, go-to menu in your repertoire that can mostly be done ahead and quickly finished with ease is key to savoring more time with your guests as well as the meal you have prepared. These recipes of earthy fall flavors and some exotic spices will please everyone’s palate and have just enough pizazz to impress, while keeping you relaxed and out of the kitchen.

The technique of roasting game hens (or any poultry for that matter) “butterflied” will reduce the cooking time and increase the surface area of golden-brown skin. Game hens are usually purchased frozen or nearly frozen, so be sure to defrost before cooking. The hens are rubbed with ras el hanout, a traditional Moroccan spice blend with complex and warm flavor notes that can be used creatively throughout your cooking. By blending it yourself, you can customize to your preference. The spice mixture can also be used to season stewed meats, roasted fish or vegetables, rice or grains, or added to yogurt or sour cream to create a flavorful dip or spread.

Enjoy a festive cocktail with your guests as the aromas of the spiced hens roasting piques their appetite. For easy, no-cook appetizers to enjoy before the meal, pick up some fresh goat cheese and crackers and spiced nuts, or serve green olives that have been warmed in a pan with a drizzle of olive oil, a few strips of orange zest, a bay leaf and a pinch of chili powder. Following the tips included with each recipe, you can plan ahead to only have the final steps for each recipe before serving. This menu serves six and the recipes can easily double for a larger group. These dishes can be served family-style or plated for each guest. For an excellent wine pairing, Draeger’s wine department recommends a Cotes du Rhone or Gigondas red, with the spicy and earthy notes complementing the north African flavors of the meal.

BUTTERFLIED GAME HENS WITH MOROCCAN SPICE RUB
Serves 6
Do-ahead: Hens can be prepared and rubbed with spices up to 24 hours in advance. Remove from refrigerator 20 minutes before roasting.

Ras el hanout spice mixture
Ingredients:
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground fennel
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon sweet or smoked paprika
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cloves

Game hens
Ingredients:
3 game hens, defrosted
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons kosher salt

Directions
In a small bowl, stir the spices to combine, and set aside. Position an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly coat a rimmed sheet pan with olive oil and set aside. Pat hens dry with paper towels. To butterfly, turn each hen breast side down and use poultry shears to cut along each side of the backbone to remove the backs. Trim away any excess skin and discard the backs. Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil and then sprinkle approximately 2 teaspoons kosher salt onto each bird, coating all sides evenly. Spread approximately 1 tablespoon spice mixture all over each hen, top and bottom. Return hens to skin side up and spread out on prepared pan without overlapping, pressing down gently with the heel of your hand if they will not flatten. Tuck wing tips under the breasts so that they do not stick up and burn during roasting. Roast hens for approximately 1 hour total, rotating pan 180 degrees halfway through the cooking and lightly basting the tops with pan drippings once at about the 30-minute mark. Roast until hens register an internal temperature of 170°F on an instant-read thermometer when inserted into the thickest part of the thigh. Remove from oven and allow to rest 15 minutes. Once rested, cut each bird in half to serve.

HERBED COUSCOUS
Do-ahead: Measure and chop all ingredients.

Ingredients:
2 cups quick-cooking plain couscous
2½ cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
¼ cup fresh mint, finely chopped
¼ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
Zest of 1 lemon
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Directions
Place dry couscous in a large heatproof bowl. Bring the stock and 3 tablespoons olive oil to a boil. Pour hot liquid over the dry couscous, submerging all grains. Place plastic wrap or a tight-fitting lid over the bowl and let steam for about 5 minutes or until all of the liquid has been absorbed. Fluff the couscous gently by scraping across the top with the tines of a fork until all is fluffed and not clumpy. Gently add the fresh herbs and lemon zest. Add salt and pepper to taste, drizzle with some more olive oil to garnish, and serve warm.

MINI PUMPKIN CHEESECAKES
Serves 6
Do-ahead: Can be made completely ahead and unmolded onto plates for serving.

Ingredients
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 ounces finely ground Biscoff cookies, graham crackers or gingersnaps (about ²/³ cup ground)
4 ounces (½ cup) canned pumpkin puree (not pie filling)
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of fresh grated nutmeg
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
2 teaspoons unbleached all-purpose flour

Directions
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Position the oven rack in the center of oven. Using 1 tablespoon butter, grease the insides of six half-cup ramekins and place them on a rimmed baking sheet. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Add to the ground cookies and stir to combine thoroughly. Scoop 1 tablespoon of crumbs into the bottom of each ramekin and use the back of the spoon or your fingertips to gently press the crumbs into an even layer. Bake the ramekins for 8 minutes, then set aside to cool. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the chopping blade, combine the pumpkin puree, cream cheese and vanilla, and process until smooth. Add the salt, spices, sugar and egg, pulsing to blend. Periodically stop and scrape down the machine and process again to remove any lumps. Add the flour and pulse just until smooth. Evenly portion the batter into the ramekins. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the centers are set. They might puff a bit. Transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely before refrigerating. Refrigerate at least 1 hour before serving. To serve, run a thin knife around the inside of the ramekins to loosen and unmold onto plates.