Sunday, May 6, 2012

Molasses Marinated Quail

I love quail, and have cooked this little bird often. Once, many years ago, I even cooked quail on a one-burner camping stove in front of our dome tent in B├ędoin near the Mont Ventoux in Southern France. The quail came with their heads attached, something I had not noticed when I got them at the local market. It was a bit of a struggle to remove these with the rather blunt knife I had. Not to mention preparing it all on a small and wobbly camping table. I cooked the quail whole and camping style. You know, with large chunks of onion and garlic, bunches of fresh herbs and seasoning from one of these multi-spice shakers. With a great Gigondas from the vrac bought at the winery earlier that day and looking out over the Provence as night was unhurriedly falling, I remember thinking it was the best bird ever. 

I hadn't been to New Orleans then. Where many a time I found a bird on my plate that "wow-ed" me speechless. Duck basted with spicy sweetness and slow-roasted until the meat fell off the bone, making me forget all manners and decorum. Semi-deboned quail stuffed with a sweet cornbread and spicy andouille stuffing. Squab glazed to perfection, again its spicy sweetness highlighting the gamey softness of the bird. 

I have had other, gorgeous quail since. Roasted with pomegranate and fresh za'atar. Butterflied, marinated in curried yogurt and grilled over charcoal. Or dripping with sweet soy and ginger sauce. Quail is in the same family as pheasant. Yet where pheasant is best prepared in a subtle manner to do the bird's delicate meat justice, quail thrives on bold, outspoken flavors. Below recipe is based on gastronomic memories of New Orleans. Put on some funky jazz, and get cooking!

Marinade is for 2 quail (1 quail pp for main/half quail for appetizer)

2 tbsp molasses sugar*
1 tsp cayenne pepper (or to taste)
pinch of ground allspice
pinch of ground cinnamon
1 tsp sharp (Dijon) mustard
1-2 clove garlic, crushed
½ tsp white pepper
½ tsp dried thyme
½ bottlecap balsamic vinegar (add more if marinade is too sweet, can also add lemon juice to even out)
1 bottlecap smooth (bourbon**) whisky (optional)

Prepare the marinade by mixing all ingredients in a bowl. Add a little water if too thick. Let stand at least 30 minutes to infuse all flavors. Cut the quail in two halves through the back bone first, and then carefully through the middle of the breast part. Toss in the marinade, and make sure all of the bird is covered (best to do this in a ziplock back, so you can shake and turn over every now and again). Marinade for at least 2 hours, can do overnight. Take the birds from the marinade and pat dry with a kitchen towel. Strain the marinade and reduce until thick and syrupy. Keep until ready to use. Heat a non-stick pan until hot. Season quail with salt, and pan-grill on all sides, turning regularly until cooked through (you know it is done when the meat is pulling away from the leg bone). Rest for a little while (to allow the juices in the meat to settle). Reheat the marinade sauce and toss the quail in it quickly to coat well on all sides. Keep some of the marinade sauce aside to drizzle over the quail before you serve it. You can serve hot or cooled to lukewarm.

In the photograph, the quail is served as an appetizer salad. The quail was filleted into boneless breast and separate leg and served with marinated radish, cucumber, beetroot and tomato, as well as a salsa verde. 

*molasses is a by-product of processing sugar cane or beets into sugar. It is the thick, dark liquid that remains after the sugars in the raw sugar cane or beet juice have crystallized. Molasses is also obtained from refining other sugar products (grapes, pomegranate, dates, etc). Natural molasses sugar (unrefined cane sugar packed with natural molasses) has a distinctive bitter-sweet taste.  The molasses marinade is also great to baste roasting duck, or glaze poultry and/or beef/game.

**Bourbon is a distillate made in the USA, aged on barrel, and made primarily from corn. For the recipe, any smooth whisky will do. It is optional though: while it adds another dimension to the marinade, the flavors of the marinade stand perfectly fine without the addition of whisky.


  1. Is whiskey added traditionally as well? I don't think I have come across any dish using whiskey. But then there so many options in the food world!

  2. So great to see recipes here too! I think one of the best things about eating away from home is the inspiration we take back there. Well done