This deceptively easy dish makes for an elegant yet rustic presentation, perfect for a winter evening, preferably beside a nice roaring fire…
First prepare your quails (one or two person will suffice) by stuffing their cavities with a mixture of cubed pancetta, chopped sage leaves, salt and pepper. It is best to tie their little legs together with some kitchen twine. (Otherwise, the legs will tend to ‘spread eagle’ as they braise and the stuffing will tend to spill out of the cavity.) Season well with salt and pepper.
Then sear the birds well on all sides in olive oil, in a saute pan or braiser just big enough to hold them, snugly along with a crushed clove of garlic and a few more sage leaves and a sprig of rosemary. (Remove the garlic as soon as it begins to brown.) Pour over some white wine and allow to evaporate almost completely. Then cover and allow the birds to braise very gently for about an hour. Add water or broth from time to time to prevent them from drying out.
Meanwhile, towards the end of the braising time, sauté some roughly chopped chanterelle mushrooms in olive oil, seasoning them as they cook with salt and pepper. Add the sautéed mushrooms to the quails about 15 minutes before they are done.
Serve the quails and mushrooms over a bed of soft polenta (as pictured), mashed potatoes or, for a more elegant effect, risotto in bianco. Deglaze the pan with a bit of white wine or broth and nap the birds with the resulting sauce.
NOTES: Served with polenta or risotto, this makes for a great piatto unico or one-dish meal. You can precede the dish with a rustic appetizer (a plate of affettati, for example) and follow with a winter green salad of escarole or curly endive hearts. With some cheese and pears for dessert you’ll be in heaven. But if you’d like a separate primo, you can always serve the quails on their own, perhaps with some steamed baby potatoes to go with.
This dish is reminiscent of polenta e osei, a famous Lombardian dish of polenta with small song birds, not a dish you are likely to find outside northern Italy. (The same name is also given to a marzipan dessert that is said to resemble the dish.)
Quails have fabulous flavor but can be a bit fussy to eat with a knife and fork. Semi-boned quails (which have their breast bones removed) are more expensive but make for much easier eating. Otherwise, unless I’m in public, I usually succumb to hunger and pick them up with my hands!