Long before roast chicken and mashed potatoes dominated the dinner table, game—including boar, venison, rabbit, squab, and quail—was the favored evening meal. And as today’s chefs compete to entice customers’ palates, game birds and animals are making their way back to the dining room. Increase in demand is attributed to two factors: a more adventurous dining public (Wasabi-Pomegranate Risotto? Sure!) and the realization that most game meat is lower in saturated fat and calories than many domestic meats. For example, quail has 40% fewer calories and 60% fewer grams of fat, pound for pound, than chicken. Indeed, purveyors of quail report that demand has grown steadily over the past decade—not only to restaurant operators, but to gourmet shops and neighborhood supermarkets as well.
This small, New World game bird comes from the family known as Phasianidae and the order Galliformes. The name, from the Roman coacula, is said to be derived from the sound made by the bird. The most familiar quail variety, the bobwhite, is often referred to as partridge in the Southern states, as quail to the North, and as blue quail in the Southwest. Quails nest on the ground and prefer walking to flying. Today, most are farm-raised and are therefore available year round.
Weighing in at 4-6 oz., with only about an ounce or two of breast meat on its body, quail is the smallest game bird eaten in the U.S. Since they are so petite, two are often served per entree, while one is usually slated for an appetizer or a small-plate dish. Jumbo quail is also available, weighing up to a whopping 8-10 oz.
Quail is fairly versatile in the kitchen. Its meat is tender, rich, sweet, and aromatic, with a slight nutty flavor. Young birds, simply seasoned, are crisp and juicy straight off the rotisserie or the grill—whether paired with figs and a port wine reduction, or a simple pile of roasted potatoes. Boned quail is ideal for the sauté pan, and is also well-suited for stuffing and roasting. Fancy fillers include slabs of foie gras teamed with prunes soaked in Armagnac or chopped truffles combined with chicken livers. Roasted Provençal vegetables work nicely too. Classic French cookbooks call for quail to be roasted and set in a nest of shredded, fried potatoes (Cailles Farcies Au Nid) or cooked en casserole with butter. Other recipes suggest poaching quail in a rich veal stock, braising, or barding—covering the breast with a slice of salt pork fat to protect it from drying out in the oven.
The most common challenge with quail, as with most game meat, is overcooking. Because of its low fat content, it tends to cook faster and dry out more quickly than other poultry. Game birds are tested for doneness by piercing the skin of the fleshy thigh; for quail, the juice should run slightly pink. Generally, older birds are tougher, and therefore fare better when braised or cooked with moist heat.
Whole quail is available fresh and frozen; bone-in and boneless. Quail breast and quail thighs are also on the market. For foodservice, quail is offered by the case (36 birds per case) and by the four- or six-pack. Look for moist, fat birds with smooth and supple skin. The wing tips should be pliable and the breastbone firm. While fresh birds are generally preferable, frozen quail is quite acceptable and indeed superior to fresh specimens that are not handled well.