I love chicken, but I find it a shame that so many people overlook all the other edible birds out there: duck, goose, turkey, pigeon, guinea fowl, Cornish hens and—last but not least—quail, just to name a few. Most of these can be hard to find these days, as supermarkets have, for the most part, succumbed to the tyranny of the chicken. Still, turkey is easy enough to find (it’s well worth seeking out even when it’s not Thanksgiving!) and you can sometimes find one of the other birds, if not fresh then frozen. And thank heaven for the internet, where D’Artagan offers quail and other ‘gourmet poultry’ online.
Small birds like quail or Cornish hens are especially suited, to my taste, for light, elegant meals. Quail don’t offer a lot of meat, but they have a wonderfully delicate taste. And if you can’t find them, a small Cornish hen will work in any recipe calling for quail, including this one: quail braised in white wine with young spring peas and pancetta. The peas lend their sweetness and the pancetta it savoriness. Quail is a lean bird, but slow, moist heat keeps it nice and juicy. The peas are braised along with the bird, for enough time for them to cook and absorb the wonderful juices. There’s no real sauce, but if you take a bit of bird, pancetta and peas with each bite, and you won’t miss it.
For 6 persons
- 6 quail or 3 Cornish hens, split down the middle lengthwise
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) pancetta, cut into cubes
- 3-4 cloves of garlic, lightly crushed
- Dry white wine
- 500g (16 oz) peas, frozen or fresh and shelled
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
If using the Cornish hens, split them down the middle, through the breast bone and down through the backbone, then lay them on their sides, skin side up, and give them all a good thumping with the bottom of a skillet to flatten them out.
In a sauté pan or braiser large enough to hold all the birds in a single layer, sauté the pancetta gently in olive oil until the fat is translucent. Raise the heat and add the birds and the garlic. Brown the birds nicely on both sides. Season them with salt and pepper on both sides, turning all the while in the oil. Then add a splash of white wine.
Cover the pan and lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Let the birds braise for about 30 minutes, turning them from time to time. If you find the pan is drying out, add a bit more wine or water as you go.
If using fresh peas, add them about halfway through; if using fresh peas, add them about 5 minutes before the end.
Optional: If you like your skin brown and crispy like I do, remove the birds from the pan and run them under a hot broiler for a few minutes, until nice and golden.
Serve the birds on a bed of the braised peas.
For this Sunday’s dinner, I couldn’t find quail at the local supermarket so I used some small Cornish hens, and they were perfectly delicious made this way. If using quail, you can stuff them with a bit of pancetta and a few rosemary leaves and a peppercorn or two, for extra flavor.
The dish can also be made in rosso—with a tomato sauce—by adding a small can of tomatoes, crushed with your hands as you drop them into the pan, right after the wine. You could also go in another direction entirely: substitute shallots for the garlic, use butter instead of olive oil (or in combination) and add a good pour of heavy cream at the end, letting it reduce to a saucy consistency before serving.