Pomander and Wild Ginger Game Hens to Dispel Darkness
In the cozy evenings of fall and winter, kitchens become a perfumed sanctuary - a place of warmth, filled with the smells of spices permeating hearty dishes. There’s a good reason pumpkin pie spice has become a seasonal fixation; the cozy warmth of baking spices is aromatherapy at its best.
Humans have used scent to alter their environments and their moods for centuries. One of the earliest examples are pomanders, which date back to at least the 13th century. Their name comes from the French term pomme d’ambre, or ‘apple of amber’, probably because early pomanders were formed into a round, apple-like shape and often contained an aromatic ingredient called ambergris. Their name can also be interpreted as “golden apple,” which was a name for indulgent and fragrant citrus fruits at the time. In any case, pomanders are essentially balls of fragrance that originated in the Middle Ages and were used to perfume or purify. They were comprised of herbs, spices, flower petals, animal musks, waxes, and other binders and served many purposes through history, including protection against illness or bad spirits. They were also carried on the body to mask body odor in the days when baths were not quite so common.
In the days of the Black Plague, pomanders were more than a pleasant decoration. Before we understood that diseases are caused by the spread of bacteria, strongly scented herbs were thought to prevent the spread of disease. (And not completely wrongly, as many herbs and spices contain antibacterial properties, especially when burned.) During this period, pomanders were seen as protective charms, both from physical ailments and bad spirits.
As their use evolved through the centuries, pomanders went from a protective icon to a celebratory one; perhaps because of their use for dispelling illness they were seen as a blessing or charm. By the 17th or 18th century, clove-studded oranges were a common sight at luxurious holiday parties. Oranges, tangerines, and other citrus were often used since they represented a lavish treat (unlike apples, which could be grown locally and stored in a root cellar, oranges had to be grown in special green houses or imported from warmer climates, making them much more expensive.) Oranges are associated with riches and prosperity, making them a popular holiday gift. They also harken back to the other interpretation of “pomander;” golden apple.
Today, the clove-studded orange version of pomanders are a nostalgic holiday decoration or gift. They fill the room with a delightful orange-spice scent and can be hung in windows or tree branches, displayed in bowls, or dried and tucked into drawers to scent clothing and deter pests. But I think their protective and festive magic can be used beyond decoration, which is why I developed this delicious recipe for spiced game hens stuffed with pomanders, which infuse the succulent birds with the same lovely warm flavor that perfumes your home. I suppose you could say that this warm fall meal will keep away the darkness and bad spirits… or you could just call it delicious. Either way, give it a try for a stunning and tasty meal to share!
The other “secret ingredient” in these flavorful game hens is wild ginger. Wild ginger’s glossy heart-shaped leaves can be found growing all over the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. It has a slightly milder flavor than the ginger root at the grocery store, with more floral undertones and a citrus bite. If you can’t find it, don’t worry… store-bought ginger works just as well.
Pomander Game Hens:
4 cornish game hens
1 1/4 c. mirin
3/4 c. soy sauce
1 Tbs. minced garlic
2 Tbs. minced wild ginger root (or 1 Tbs. minced ginger)
1/2 Tbs. sesame oil
1 tsp. sea salt
1/4 c. maple syrup
1/4 c. rice wine vinegar
8 cloves garlic
2 small pomanders, halved
1. Whisk together all ingredients except the hens. Place the hens into a large sealable plastic bag and pour in the marinade. Press out as much air as possible and seal, then flip the bag to evenly coat the hens. Refrigerate overnight (or at least 8 hours), turning the bags occasionally.
2. Let the hens stand at room temp for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 425F and line a large baking sheet with foil. Remove the hens from the marinate and transfer them to the baking sheet. Stuff a couple of cloves of garlic and a small pomander inside each one. Strain the marinade into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil, then simmer over medium heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Roast the hens in the hot oven for 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. Reduce the oven temp. to 375, then roast the hens for 50 minutes longer. Every 15 minutes or so, baste the hens with the thickened glaze. The hens are done when the cavity juices run clear and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the inner thighs registers 160F. Transfer hens to a platter and let rest for 10 mins before serving. Garnish with extra pomanders for a fancy presentation.
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