Monday, December 1, 2008

For the Birds, Part 1: Quail

Now that Thanksgiving is over we will concentrate on the upcoming Christmas holidays. This is the season for game birds, so our next few blogs will be about just that. First up is quail.

When we started Hemingway’s Restaurant in 1982, we drove for hours each week to pick up game birds from a small farm in Massachusetts. Luckily, Bill and Rick Thompson in Cavendish, Vermont, decided to raise pheasants, and subsequently quail. Hemingway’s became one of their first commercial accounts and to this day we still use their fine products.

Over the years we have continued to work with both the whole and semi-boneless breed Coturnix, which originated in Asia and is also known as Japanese or Pharaoh bird. It is mild flavored, almost sweet, and delicate while still having rich overtones--making it extremely versatile for a myriad of preparations. It lends to smoking, marinating, or quick brining before one roasts or sautés. (vs Vermont breed?)

As a rule, when using the whole quail, we tend not to roast, but rather sear it for a few minutes, flash it in a high oven, let it rest, then remove the meat. At the pick up we finish it in a hot pan. This procedure allows us to extract flavor from the bones, yet gives us complete control over the final product. As most cooks know you cannot get legs and breasts to cook at the same rate, so this dilemma is solved by sautéing at the end, monitoring the precise doneness. The added plus is crispy skin without overcooking!

I think boned quail should be treated altogether differently. Of course you can marinate it, throw it on the grill, or sauté it. But wait, you have a wonderfully flavored vessel that asks to be stuffed. Simply take a toothpick and secure the wing end of the bird. Stuff the cavity, then take another pick to secure the leg.

Whatever it is -- animal, vegetable, or starch (or a little of each,) it has to be put into the quail at the doneness with which you want to consume it--for most people, cooked, seasoned, moist and not dried out. In this way we again control the temperature of the meat because we do not worry about cooking the interior ingredients, only warming them through. At Hemingway’s we use a little protein, say braised pork along with fennel, mushroom, and something politically correct, say quinoa to stuff the bird.

Now give the bird a quick sear, and finish it in a moderate oven, or just rub it with oil and spices, and roast until medium. Ah, we are semi roasting, which gets us to the meat of this matter ... keeping it moist.

If you want dry birds without flavor don’t waste you money on quail, just get some chicken, throw it in the oven, mow the lawn, have a glass of wine, read a book, then take out the chicken and douse it with a sauce--and make sure you have enough liquids to wash down your meal. Birds can be moist without being raw, regardless of what the food fascists dictate. It just takes care and attention. Call our hot line with any culinary question.