The secret of tender quail is in the cooking time
Ever since my brother began carting home dozens of quail from his annual Texas hunting trips, I never cared much for the bony little buggers. Slow roasted, grilled, sauteed or deep-fried -- no matter how hard Mom and I tried, they inevitably turned into dry, stringy, two-bite disappointments.
Yet when Jokl Robuchon, Las Vegas' only Michelin three-star chef, deemed the bird worthy of a decadent foie gras stuffing, when New York's David Burke affectionately showered it with crushed gingersnaps, and Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton methodically swaddled it in pancetta at their ultra-hip new bistro Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles, I began to reconsider my antipathy to quail. Perhaps it was time for another taste.
So I headed to the Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley, where I'd heard Michelin two-star chef Joseph Humphrey knows a thing or two about cooking quail.
I wasn't disappointed. Juicy, tender and meaty, with a subtle, pleasant gaminess, Humphrey's grilled quail with Romesco sauce, dry-cured olives and Swiss chard was a far cry from the buckshot-peppered birds I remembered from my childhood.
"Most people are afraid of quail," Humphrey says. "But done right, they're flavorful and really easy to prepare. The key is to cook it quickly to keep the juices inside it."
According to Humphrey, "quickly" equates to all of 10 minutes. I was used to cooking quail at least twice as long. Could the shorter cooking time really be the secret to tender, juicy quail•
Back home, I put Humphrey's restaurant advice to the test. He butterflies the semi-boned birds -- a simple technique, to ensure they cook quickly and evenly. But first, you've got to find the quail.
Many gourmet supermarkets and online retailers carry or will special-order frozen quail that's already semi-boned. But if you're lucky enough to find whole, fresh quail, it's easy to bone yourself. Using a sharp knife, slice straight down the breastbone to open the breast cavity. Remove the rib cage so you have a boneless breast attached to the bone-in legs and wings (if the breast breaks away from the legs, which can happen with such a small bird, cook each portion separately). Lay the bird flat on the grill, close to the heat source, for quick, uniform cooking. That's pretty much it.
My first attempt yielded fall-off-the-bone-tender birds. Maybe cooking quail wasn't as difficult as I thought. Paired with Humphrey's make-ahead roasted tomato, red onion and red pepper Romesco sauce, suddenly a dish that couldn't pass muster at a casual family supper was worthy of a special-occasion dinner party debut.
With a newfound confidence in my game-bird cooking skills, I sauteed, roasted and fried my way through dozens of farm-raised quail. On weeknights, keeping Humphrey's quick-cooking advice in mind, I sauteed or grilled them, drizzling each with beurre blanc (the classic French sauce made by reducing half a cup white wine in the pan drippings and adding several tablespoons of butter) or showering them with fresh herbs and olive oil. When I was feeling more ambitious on a leisurely weekend evening, I'd pull out the deep fryer. The tiny beer-battered birds cooked up crispy and golden brown, without the hassle of deep-frying chicken, which can be all too easy to undercook or burn beyond recognition due to its large size.
Roasting was a bit trickier. Similar to their much larger cousin turkey, small game birds tend to dry out the longer they roast (10 minutes is a relatively long cooking time for a 6-inch bird). Chef Bertrand Bouquin of Summit restaurant in Colorado Springs recommends stuffing the boned breast cavity to keep it moist. A combination of savory and sweet ingredients, such as his house-made seasonal chutneys, compliment the meat's gamey flavor.
This year, Bouquin's favorite is a spicy mango-and-onion chutney. He scoops the mixture into balls and freezes them for several hours (a handy pre-party trick that makes stuffing the birds fast and easy at game time), then wraps a slice of prosciutto around the frozen orbs. Your favorite combination of dried fruits, nuts and herbs moistened with port wine or reduced balsamic vinegar also would be tasty, but skip the freezer step and stuff the filling directly into the bird.
When the party hour draws near, sear the quail ahead of time until it's golden brown, then pop the birds in the oven to finish cooking. You'll need to baste them every few minutes, a small sacrifice when the roasting time is only 10 minutes. Double-check to make sure they're cooked through -- with the frozen filling, the time can vary depending on the accuracy of your oven temperature. Drizzle the golden-brown quail with crimson-colored Piquillo pepper coulis made from the sweet roasted Spanish peppers and olive oil, and pop open a good bottle of wine.
"You need more tannins to stand up to the gaminess," says Meadowood sommelier Rom Toulon. "That could mean a lot of wines -- a Sangiovese or Malbec maybe -- but it's more fun to match the wine to the story behind the food. A California quail with a California wine."
Note to my brother: Next, year, I'd be happy to take those quail off your hands. I'll even bring the wine ... a Texas Hill Country Sangiovese, of course.
Grilled Quail with Romesco Sauce
From executive chef Joseph Humphrey of The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley, Calif.
Total time: 1 hour
For the Romesco Sauce:
• 4 Roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
• 1⁄2 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
• 2 red bell peppers, stem and seeds discarded, roughly chopped
• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
• 4 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
• 1⁄4 cup toasted almonds, finely chopped
• Salt, to taste
For the Quail:
• 6 quail, semi-boned
• Salt and black pepper, to taste
• 1 tablespoon olive oil, for brushing grill
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the tomatoes, red onion, peppers, red wine vinegar, olive oil and smoked paprika in a roasting pan and toss to combine. Cover with aluminum foil and roast until very tender, for about 30 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to a food processor or blender and process until almost smooth. Fold in the toasted almonds and season with salt. Keep warm. (Romesco may be made up to two days ahead and reheated.)
Heat the grill to medium. Lay the birds flat and season them with salt and pepper. Brush the grill with the olive oil and place the birds, skin side down, on the grill. Cook until rare, for about 8 to 10 minutes. Flip the quail and grill until medium well and the juices run clear, for about 3 minutes. Place the birds on a platter and lightly cover them with foil to keep them warm. Spoon 2 tablespoons of Romesco Sauce in the center of 6 plates. Cut each quail into 4 pieces (2 breasts and 2 legs), and arrange the pieces on the pool of Romesco Sauce. Serve with lightly sauteed Swiss chard or spinach.
Makes 6 servings.
Roasted Quail Stuffed with Mango Chutney and Prosciutto with Piquillo Pepper Coulis
Make the mango chutney at least one day ahead to allow the flavors to develop, or you may substitute good-quality jarred mango chutney.
Total time for mango chutney: 1 day and 3 hours
Total time for quail: 20 minutes
• 1 teaspoon butter
• 1 onion, diced
• 2 mangos, peeled and diced
• 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
• Salt and pepper, to taste
• 1 jar (8 ounces) piquillo peppers (Spanish sweet peppers) or roasted red peppers
• Olive oil
• 4 thin slices of prosciutto
• 4 quail, semi-boned
In a small pot over medium-low heat, melt the butter and add the onion. Cook until the onion is translucent but not brown, for about 10 minutes. Add the mango and rice vinegar, and cook until most of the liquid is evaporated and the chutney is thick, for about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Using an ice cream scoop, measure 4 small balls of chutney (small enough to fit inside the quail cavity) and freeze them for at least two hours.
Drain the peppers and puree in a blender with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Slowly add more olive oil, one tablespoon at a time, until the puree is the consistency of a thick but pourable sauce. Season with salt and pepper. The sauce may be made up to 3 days ahead, refrigerated, and brought to room temperature before serving.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Wrap each ball of frozen chutney with one slice of prosciutto and stuff into the quail. Secure the legs of each quail with a toothpick to enclose the chutney. In a saute pan, heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan over medium-high heat. Season the quail with salt and pepper and sear, turning, until evenly browned on all sides. Place the quail in the oven and roast until cooked through and the juices run clear, for about 10 to 12 minutes, basting with the pan juices every 2 minutes. If you do not have enough pan juices, baste with olive oil. To serve, drizzle each quail with 2 tablespoons of piquillo coulis.
Makes 4 servings.