A few days ago I cooked something I had never cooked before: quail, or cailles. I'd often seen them on the markets or advertised in the supermarket flyers, but for some reason had never bought any. This time, SuperU had a package of four farm-raised, supposedly ready-to-cook quails for about ten euros, and I was game.
Imagine my surprise when I opened the package and found the little birds with their heads still on. To my mind, that's not really what should be called prêt-à-cuire. Oh well. Off with them... an old French tradition. My guillotine being in storage these days, I just used a big kitchen knife.
Each quail weighed in at about 250 grams, or a little over half a pound. Quail, by the way, are migratory birds that greatly resemble partridges but are much smaller. American quails are slightly larger than the Old World varieyy, but they are said to be excellent eating. As I mentioned, these quail were farm-raised — no buckshot in them. Besides having their heads still attached, they also needed further plucking to remove a lot of stray pinfeathers.
The recipe I had picked out of the Larousse Gastronomique was for quail served with garden peas. After pondering the question, I decided the best way to finish preparing the quails for roasting was to butterfly them. It's easy to cut out each bird's backbone with a good pair of kitchen shears, and then spread the birds out so that they'll lie fairly flat on a baking rack.
It's good to season the volaille at this point, with herbs, spices (paprika, hot or smoked, or both) and salt and pepper. Then turn them over to roast in a hot oven for 20 minutes or so. They're very small, so they don't take long to cook.
It was a lot of work to get them ready for the oven, and I told Walt I didn't know if I would be eager to cook quail again any time soon. While I kept working on the quail, I also cooked some diced carrots and little pearl onions (oignons grelots or "sleigh-bell onions" in French) to serve with frozen peas, along with a few smoked pork lardoons.
To finish cooking the quails and give good flavor to the peas and carrots, I arranged the roasted birds on top of a batch of vegetables, covered the pan, and let everything steam on top of the stove for 10 minutes before serving time.
There of course isn't a lot to eat on a quail. Eating the tiny bit of meat on the wings reminded me of eating frogs' legs. The drumsticks and thighs were a little more generous and succulent. However, the breast meat was a real treat. You couldn't call it white meat, exactly. In French, the breast filet is called a suprême, and these really were supreme, actually.