Anatomy of a Classic

No-Fail Quail

You’ve bagged the birds. Here’s how to cook them up right.

photo: Johnny Autry


To be a successful quail hunter, you need to be a quick shot. And it just so happens faster is better when it comes to cooking them, too. “By virtue of their size and boniness, quicker methods work best for quail,” says Hugh Acheson, chef-owner of Five & Ten in Athens, Georgia. “And unlike larger game birds, the white and dark meat will cook at about the same time.”

Acheson’s game résumé includes everything from wild boar to pheasant, and his quail braise employs his trademark style: simple, pure, and disciplined. The key to keeping the quail meat moist and tender is in the sear, the preliminary browning of the birds. Using a cast-iron Dutch oven, heat the oil to just below smoking. Then brown the quail on all sides, which not only deepens the flavor but also creates a crust that prevents the birds from steaming in the cooking liquid. “You want the skin to get good and crisp,” the chef says. “Although it will soften again during the braising, the birds will retain that browned goodness.”

There’s no need to get overly complex. Acheson designed this braise to pull the most amount of flavor out of a small number of ingredients. Stock is mixed with hard cider for a lighter, crisper braising liquid, grounded by the earthiness of the fresh herbs and aromatic leeks. The addition of tender-skinned Medjool dates imparts a rich, natural sweetness to the liquid without overpowering the delicate gaminess of the birds. This is a classic hunting meal, Acheson says. “All it takes is one pot and simple ingredients. The quail are up to you.”


Ingredients

  • Braised Quail with Leeks, Dates and Cider

    • 4 quail, gutted and cleaned

    • Sea salt

    • Freshly ground black pepper

    • 2 squash-ball-size yellow onions, peeled and halved

    • 2 tbsp. olive oil

    • 2 medium leeks, whites and pale greens only, cleaned and diced to 1/2-inch (about 2 cups)

    • 1/2 cup pitted and chopped Medjool dates (about 6 dates)

    • Bouquet garni of thyme, parsley, and bay leaf (4 sprigs each fresh thyme and flat-leaf parsley, and 1 fresh bay leaf, tied together with kitchen twine)

    • 1 cup hard apple cider

    • 1 cup chicken stock


Preparation

  1. Rinse quail under cool running water, dry on paper towels, and season liberally with salt and pepper. Stuff half an onion into the body cavity of each bird, and truss it by tying together the drumsticks with kitchen twine.

  2. In a Dutch oven over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil to just below smoking. Gently add all the quail, and crisp on each breast side, about 2 minutes per side, and then brown the back as well. Remove the quail from the pot and set aside.

  3. Using the same pot, lower heat to medium, add the leeks, and cook until the leeks begin to soften (stirring frequently), about 5 minutes. Add the chopped dates, the bouquet garni, and the cider. Cook the cider down for about 3 minutes, and add the chicken stock and the quail. Let the liquid come almost to a boil, cover, and turn the heat down so the cooking liquid is barely simmering, cooking until quail are done, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove quail and reduce cooking liquid until slightly thickened, about 3 to 5 minutes. Spoon liquid over the quail before serving.

Meet the Chef: Hugh Acheson

Hometown: Ottawa, Canada

Current Restaurants: Five & Ten, the National (Athens, Georgia)

On the Five & Ten menu: Cornmeal-crusted veal sweetbreads; braised pork cheeks; Frogmore stew

Guiding principle: “Merging soul food with old-world cuisine”

Personal flourish: Has a tattoo of a radish on his forearm


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