American Quail

bobwhite quail
Late Autumn Bobs (detail), by Robert Abbett (1926–2015)

The pursuit of quail has long been a favourite pastime of American hunters, from the earliest colonial days onward, and what we lack in native pheasants we make up for in quail.

North America has six native species, from the iconic northern bobwhite to the clownish Montezuma, and the number balloons to 15 if you include Mexico. As an added bonus, we don’t even have to worry about coturnism. That little gem of a syndrome occurs when the unsuspecting victim eats a migratory quail that has been stuffing itself with hemlock seeds, leading to acute kidney failure mere hours later. It’s strictly a problem with Old World quail, and becoming more rare as they increase their reliance on grain fields for migratory fuel.

Instead, the North American quail hunter’s biggest worry is degrading habitat quality, which has been the main driver for the decline in many quail species. Looking to mimic the conservation success of ducks, some groups are now calling for the establishment of a Federal Upland Stamp to raise funds for land acquisitions.

For now at least, there is still good quail hunting to be had, whether it be on well-managed quail plantations in the East, or in the Western deserts and scrublands. Though quail can be abundant, they are not free.

Wild game is “free meat” in the same sense that Canadian health care is free. There’s no bill at the end of the day, but you pay nonetheless. Wingshooters in particular, pursuing small quarry at high cost, are much better served by appealing to the intangible pleasures of their sport.

The alternative would be measuring success in cost per pound, which would be a disaster. Doubly so when things don’t go as planned. For example, I once shot an old-squaw, the lone result of a trip for two, which ended up costing $400 per pound. At that price point, you can eat much better than long-tailed duck. But I wouldn’t have traded that day in the blind—my friend and I, a pair of shivering and decoyless amateurs—for anything. Or consider that a single quail breast weighs about the same as a Chicken McNugget. Three quails and a side of cottontail surely make for a happier meal.

What I like most about eating quail is getting a whole bird to myself. Most quail is served semiboneless, which is fairly simple to do at home and makes the bird a little easier to cook and serve.

To prepare a bird this way, start by removing the neck, which can be reserved along with the carcass to make a fine stock. Then, make a small incision along the breasts to expose the wishbone, which you can then pull out with your hands. Working from the neck cavity, cut the wing joints away from the body and begin separating the meat and skin from the carcass using your thumbs, pushing everything back as if you were taking off a sweater.

The tenderloins will stay attached to the body, and can either be reserved for another use or stuffed back into the quail before cooking. Keep working your way backwards until you get to the leg joints, and cut these away with a knife. Pull the carcass away, turn the quail skin-side out, and you’re finished.

Cooking quail is usually a fairly simple affair as a result of their diminutive size. Because they cook so quickly, a sweet marinade or glaze is often used to help get that gorgeous brown exterior before the inside overcooks.

Quail spiedini with sage polenta and Asiago

Although this is a traditional Italian dish, there’s something that seems very American about it. Maybe it’s because it evokes a quail hunt through sagebrush and cornfields. This one is from Mario Batali’s first cookbook, Simple Italian Food: Recipes from My Two Villages.

8 semi-boneless birds

4 pieces pancetta, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon black pepper, freshly ground

1 medium red onion, cut into .-inch dice
1 quart water
10 fresh sage leaves, chopped
1 cup quick-cooking polenta, or yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup Asiago cheese, grated

Toss the quail and marinade ingredients in a large mixing bowl; then cover and refrigerate it overnight.

Preheat a grill or broiler to high.

On a bamboo skewer, thread one quail, followed by a piece of pancetta and a second quail. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes on each side, until the quail are just pink at the leg bones.

In a medium saucepan, combine the onion, water, and sage; then bring to a boil. Meanwhile, pour the polenta into the boiling liquid, whisking constantly so it doesn’t clump, until the polenta begins to thicken (1 to 2 minutes). With a wooden spoon, add the cheese and cook for another minute or so, until the polenta reaches the consistency of oatmeal. Remove the polenta from the heat, divide it into 4 plates, and top each serving with a skewer of quail.

Quail and pine nut risotto

When I picked up the Le Pigeon cookbook, Le Pigeon: Cooking at the Dirty Bird, the first picture I saw was of a rabbit terrine, inlaid with eel filets. Flipping through the rest of the book, I realized that I was holding in my hands an instant classic. The cooking is daring, and the combinations are mouthwatering. This is food you want to eat, no questions asked. This recipe is a little involved on the preparation side, but the actual cooking and plating are straightforward. It makes for a perfect light Sunday lunch.

Pine Nut Risotto
1 pound pine nuts
1 quart water
kosher salt
1 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1/4 cup chopped prunes
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup grated Parmesan

Blood Orange Marmalade
2 1/2 pounds blood oranges
1/2 teaspoon Chine five-spice powder
1/2 pound sliced shallots
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup mirin
juice of 1 lemon

Quail Glaze
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup sugar
3 small garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Port Syrup
1 cup ruby port
1 cup red wine vinegar

Onion Confit
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

4 semi-boneless birds
kosher salt
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

1/4 cup thinly sliced green onions, cut on the diagonal

The night before, soak the pine nuts, water, and 1 teaspoon salt in a large bowl at room temperature for the risotto.

You may also prepare the marmalade ahead. Cut each orange in half and juice them, saving the orange halves. Cut each orange piece in two; then slice away and discard the pulp. Thinly slice the peels and combine with the juice and the remaining marmalade ingredients, except for the lemon juice, in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat for 30 to 40 minutes, until thickened and syrupy. Stir in the lemon juice; then transfer the marmalade to a clean Mason jar. Let it cool and then refrigerate it. The glaze, syrup, and confit can also be prepared in advance.

For the glaze, combine the honey and sugar in a small saucepan and set over medium heat. Cook until the mixture has the consistency of maple syrup, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and remove from the heat. Transfer the glaze to a heatproof container and let it cool.

To make the syrup, combine the port and red wine vinegar in a small saucepan and reduce over medium heat, until it becomes a thick syrup, about 10 minutes.

For the confit, combine the ingredients in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until the onion is soft but has not yet taken on any color, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

To finish the risotto, place the pine nuts along with their liquid in a pressure cooker and cook over high heat (approximately 15 psi) for 15 minutes. Relieve the pressure and drain the pine nuts, discarding the liquid. In a medium pot set over medium heat, combine the pine nuts, chicken stock, thyme, prunes, and onion confit. Continue to cook, stirring often, until the liquid is reduced to roughly 1/4 cup. Stir in the butter and Parmesan, season with salt, and keep the risotto warm while you cook the quail.

To cook the quail, season them with salt and sear in a small ovenproof pan. Brush the quail liberally with the glaze on all sides; then return it to the pan and place in the oven for about 4 minutes. The quail should reach an internal temperature of 145 degrees F.

To serve, divide the risotto between four dishes. Spoon a dollop of marmalade and add a drizzle of port syrup around the risotto. Top with a quail, and garnish with the green onions.