Life twists in ways you can’t always anticipate, which is how a Texan named Jesse Houston came to cook a dish identified with Nashville in a restaurant helping to remake Jackson, Mississippi.
Houston left Texas in 2010 to take a job with the chef Craig Noone, who was opening Parlor Market in Jackson. Not long after, Noone was killed in a car accident, leaving Houston to carry on at his mentor’s stove. He ended up marrying a Jackson native, Rachel Horn Houston, and the two went on to open their own restaurant, Saltine, in the city’s historic Fondren arts district.
Saltine is all about seafood, and the menu includes a dish called Craig’s oyster stew, a nod to Houston’s former boss. But even a seafood restaurant needs a few other options on the menu. Houston didn’t want what he calls “a throwaway chicken dish,” and he had heat on the brain after a recent trip to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville. “It was a religious experience,” he says of the hurts-so-good spicy fried chicken served with Wonder Bread and a handful of dill-pickle coins. “It’s so hot it can ruin you for the day, so I had to find a way to bring it right to that edge.”
Instead of chicken, Houston prefers tasty Cornish hens, which cook faster. But when quail is in season, he pays tribute to local hunters, including his father-in-law, by adapting the recipe to the game bird. His technique is straightforward: First, he bathes the quail in buttermilk and pickle juice, which helps tenderize the meat and gives it a tang that pairs nicely with the spiciness of the crust. A double dip in highly seasoned flour and more buttermilk creates a crunchy coat that holds up when the bird is tossed in oil and cayenne pepper. The heat is tamed slightly by a ranch-style dressing heavy with black pepper. Houston’s recipe fries up quickly at home to medium-rare or medium in a cast-iron pan. He suggests adding a little bacon fat to the frying oil for even more flavor.
But this is not a dish to get fancy with. Houston serves it simply, with cheap white bread at the base and supermarket pickles on the top. As he says, “There’s a flavor profile you can only get from cheap-ass pickles.”