Here are a couple tickets for an overnight train trip, complete with sleeping compartment and dinner beforehand in the dining car, courtesy of James Porterfield’s Dining by Rail. In this case, the meal includes two lines’ specialties, Roast Quebec Capon, as enjoyed for decades aboard the Canadian Pacific’s trains, accompanied by Savory Mushroom Dressing, a specialty of the New Haven Railroad. Two systems, two countries and one perfect combination.
The capon is adapted here for Cornish Hens, as their more modest size makes for a better presentation and their more moderate expense renders them only a bit of an extravagance. After the Quebecois manner, the hens are affixed with salt pork (or in this case, thick-cut bacon), as illustrated below:
The bird is then lightly floured and is baked on a rack set above a tray, which catches the luscious drippings, both from the hen and from the bacon. Carrots, celery and a shallot are placed in the pan for the last half hour, and the vegetable infused drippings are collected to start a beautiful gravy, as seen this week smothering the dressing, with supplements waiting in the gravy boat just above the plate.
Care is taken not to overcook the hen, and the bacon adds to the savor, producing a juicy, flavorful main course. Each hen is halved, a task for which a good set of poultry shears made a particularly apt Christmas gift a few years ago:
Only a superb stuffing could keep pace with this elevated tone, and fortunately, the New Haven line’s Savory Mushroom Dressing delivers. Mushrooms are sautéed with shallots and herbs, then are mixed with bread crumbs and are cooked alongside the hen for 45 minutes. The result is wonderfully satisfying, particularly when served with some of that exquisite gravy.
The dinner is served with buttered corn and chives, a specialty of neither line, but a great addition nonetheless. A sublime meal which you’ve completed with a glass of wine, while your travelling companion chooses a mixed drink. These allow you to enjoy the warm glow of a more refined travel prevalent seventy years ago, and of the cuisine of two railroads, two nations, perfected.
Roast Quebec Capon, Canadian Pacific Style
- 1 6-pound capon (*1)
- 6 slices salt pork (*2)
- 1 onion, quartered (*3)
- 1 carrot, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 3 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch slices
- 1/4 cup flour, plus more for dusting bird(s)
- 2 cups chicken stock
Preheat the oven to 325°. Lightly salt the hens, inside and out, and tie the legs with culinary twine. Cover the breast and leg joints with salt pork/bacon, also affixed with culinary twine. Dust bird(s) moderately with flour.
Set bird(s) on a wire rack placed over a baking pan, and cook for an hour. Flip bird(s) and place onion, carrot and celery in the baking pan, beneath the rack. Cook for another 90 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven and put the bird(s) on a platter, then cover with aluminum foil to preserve warmth. Meanwhile, remove the vegetables from the pan and discard them. Lightly scrape the pan bottom with a metal spatula, to disengage some of the baked-on drippings.
Pour the drippings through a fine-mesh strainer or a cheesecloth, into a medium saucepan. Whisk in the remaining 1/4-cup of flour to create a light roux. Place the saucepan over a medium flame and, whisking constantly, slowly pour in the chicken stock, a bit at a time.
Bring to a boil, then reduce flame to low, still whisking constantly. Continue whisking frequently until the gravy thickens sufficiently, about ten minutes.
Cut the string from the bird(s) and discard it. Also, remove and discard (or eat!) the bacon. If you cooked a whole capon, carve it for service. If you prepared two hens, halve each of them by cutting them lengthwise down the middle, top and bottom. (*3) Serve immediately accompanied by stuffing (recipe below) if you prepared it, and surrounded with gravy.
1 – Cornish hens still give the dinner a distinctive touch, and they’re less expensive than is a capon. Plus, a halved hen looks a little more elegant than would a carved capon, don’t you think?
2 – Bacon is much more easily attainable than is salt pork. Try to use thick-cut bacon, though, as it best endures its time in the oven.
3 – You know what I’m going to suggest, don’t you? Two medium shallots, halved, surpass an onion any day.
Savory Mushroom Dressing
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 and 1/2 cups mushrooms, chopped (*4)
- 3 cups stale bread crumbs (*5)
- 1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 3/4 teaspoons freshly-ground pepper
- pinch of ground cayenne pepper
- pinch of freshly-ground nutmeg (*6)
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley (*7)
- 1 tablespoon chopped onion (*8)
- 1/4 cup chicken stock
Place a large skillet over a medium flame. Stir in the butter until melted, about a minute. Add the mushrooms and sauté until tender, about two more minutes. Add the other ingredients and mix in with a fork. Spritz a medium casserole with cooking spray and place stuffing in it.
Place lid on casserole and put in the oven alongside the cooking birds for their last 45 minutes in the oven. Turn off the heat, but leave casserole in the oven, covered, while you prepare the gravy. To serve, spoon some stuffing onto serving plates alongside the bird. Pour some of the gravy over it.
4 – No need to get fancy with the mushrooms; white “snowcap” mushrooms are worthy of the dish.
5 – Choose any variety of bread – white, sourdough or wheat. If you don’t have a couple days to set out the bread to get it stale, toasting it lightly is quicker.
6 – Use a nutmeg grinder or, as I did, grate it with a microplane. The nutmeg offers a subtle, yet crucial, facet. Besides, the New Haven line was in Connecticut, and Connecticut is the Nutmeg State after all.
7 – Almost as famous as a preference for shallots is my favoring cilantro over parsley. Cilantro isn’t bitter, and this results in a superior stuffing.
8 – Still, shallots are the better-known choice. Their less-astringent taste favors the stuffing too.