Anatomy of a Classic

Hot Quail

Serves 4

Fried quail gets some Nashville-style heat

photo: Johnny Autry


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.”


Ingredients

    • 1 tbsp. plus 1 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

    • 3 tbsp. kosher salt, divided

    • 4 large eggs

    • 2 cups buttermilk

    • 2 tbsp. Tabasco

    • 1/4 cup dill-pickle juice

    • 4 semi-boneless quail, quartered

    • 4 cups all-purpose flour

    • 1 1/2 tsp. garlic powder

    • 1 1/2 tsp. onion powder

    • Canola oil, for frying

    • Nashville-Style Hot Sauce (recipe below)

    • 8 slices white bread

    • 1/2 cup Black Pepper Ranch, plus extra for dipping (recipe below)

    • Sliced dill pickles, for garnish

  • Nashville-Style Hot Sauce

    • 4 tbsp. cayenne pepper

    • 2 tbsp. dark brown sugar

    • 1 tsp. chile powder

    • 1 tsp. garlic powder

    • 1 tsp. paprika

    • 1 tsp. cup canola oil

  • Black Pepper Ranch

    • 1/2 cup buttermilk

    • 1/2 cup sour cream

    • 1/2 cup mayonnaise

    • 1/2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh parsley

    • 1 1/4 tsp. finely chopped fresh chives

    • 1 tsp. finely chopped fresh dill

    • 2 tsp. lemon juice

    • 1/2 tsp. onion powder

    • 1/4 tsp. garlic powder

    • 1/2 tsp. salt

    • 3/4 tsp. black pepper


Preparation

  1. In a large mixing bowl, whisk 1 tablespoon pepper, 2 table-spoons salt, eggs, buttermilk, Tabasco, and pickle juice. Add quail pieces, and marinate at least 4 hours or overnight.

  2. In a separate bowl, combine flour, 1½ teaspoons pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, and remaining salt. Set aside.

  3. When ready to fry, heat 2 inches of oil in a cast-iron skillet to 350°F. Remove quail pieces from marinade. Dredge legs in seasoned flour, return to marinade, coat once more with seasoned flour, and then fry pieces about 5 minutes. Repeat with breasts, cooking to medium-rare, about 3 minutes. Remove quail from pan, blot with paper towels, and add to a bowl of Nashville-Style Hot Sauce to coat generously.

  4. On a large platter, arrange slices of white bread and top with fried and sauced quail. Drizzle Black Pepper Ranch over entire dish and garnish with sliced dill pickles.

  5. For the hot sauce:

    Combine dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Slowly whisk in canola oil until smooth. Set aside.

  6. For the ranch:

    Whisk ingredients in a mixing bowl until smooth. Refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to 3 days.

Meet the Chef: Jesse Houston

Current restaurant: Saltine, Jackson, Mississippi
Hometown: Dallas, Texas
Biggest revelation upon moving to Mississippi: “Everybody hunts and fishes.”
His wife’s biggest complaint about the Texas-Mississippi cultural divide: “I don’t have quite the Southern gentleman manners she wishes I had.”
How he learned to cook: Making dinner as a teenager while living with his father. It was a survival strategy.
Favorite kitchen tool: “I’ve got to have my rolling pin.”


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