Quail is a versatile little bird whose lean flesh and small size means that it cooks quickly. The flavour of the meat welcomes many accompaniments (such as the ones overleaf), but I also enjoy it simply rubbed generously with a mixture of ground cumin, cardamom, coriander seed and cinnamon, just before cooking. Alternatively, try sharp, sweet, Asian flavours, such as a paste made of fish sauce, palm sugar, chillies and garlic, generously spooned over the birds and served alongside glass noodles as soon as they have left the oven.
There is not a lot of meat on a quail, once you get past the plump breast, and it is almost impossible to use utensils. So instead, pick them up with your fingers and chew on the tasty bits of meat that are to be found on their legs and wings.
Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627, petershamnurseries.com
These recipes accompany quails cooked by the following method.
To cook the quails...
Two quails per person
A sprig or two of thyme
2 tbsp softened unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas7. Lightly season the quails with salt, both inside and out. You can do this up to 24 hours in advance – it will add succulence to the bird. Place the thyme and half of the butter inside the cavity. Rub the rest of the butter over the skin. Place the quails breast side up on a heavy based roasting tin, a few inches apart so that they brown evenly. Place on the middle shelf of the oven and cook for 12 minutes, turning half-way. The flesh should feel firm with just the slightest yield, and should be beige with just a tinge of pink. Remove from the oven and rest for 10 minutes.
Quail with red wine lentils
These lentils are lovely to serve at this time of year. They will take longer than usual to cook, as the acidity of the wine lengthens the time they take to become tender, but the flavour develops and mellows over the cooking time.
3 tbsp mild-tasting olive oil
2 carrots, peeled and finely diced
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
300g/10oz small lentils, such as Puy
1 generous sprig of thyme
2 fresh bay leaves
250ml/8fl oz of medium-bodied red wine
750ml/11/4 pints of fresh chicken stock
A little extra olive oil for drizzling
Warm the olive oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan. Add the carrots, celery, onions and a small pinch of salt, and stir for about five minutes. Once the vegetables have softened, add the lentils, bay and thyme. Pour over the wine and half of the chicken stock. Raise the heat slightly to a gentle simmer, then cook uncovered, stirring every now and then. Add more stock as you need, allowing the lentils to absorb the liquid before adding any more. Cook for 30 minutes, or until the lentils are nutty and just tender. Season well with salt, as they will need it. Stir in a little more olive oil just before serving with the quail.
Quail with roasted pumpkin and chimichurri
The sweet, slightly caramel flavour of the roasted squash works well alongside the sticky succulence of the birds, while the chimichurri adds just a little kick.
Chimichurri is actually an Argentinian marinade for beef, but I like to spoon it over all sorts of things. It is best made on the day of using, so that its vibrant taste remains strong and clear.
1 orange-fleshed squash
A drizzle of olive oil
1 dried red chilli, crumbled
1 tbsp oregano, leaves only
Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Slice the squash in half and scoop out the seeds, then slice into half-inch slices. Place in a bowl and pour over the olive oil. Crumble over the chilli and add the salt and oregano. Toss together well, then arrange in a roasting tin and roast for 30 minutes – turning once during the cooking time to prevent the squash from sticking to the base and burning.
For the chimichurri
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 tbsp sweet paprika
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 red chilli, as finely chopped as possible
1 small bunch of oregano
1 small bunch of thyme
1 small bunch flat leaf parsley
1 tsp sea salt
200ml/7fl oz olive oil
While the squash is roasting, make the sauce. Place the paprika, garlic, chilli and vinegar in a bowl. Pound the herbs together in a pestle and mortar until broken and bruised, then add the salt and olive oil. Stir everything together well, and set aside.
Arrange the warm squash onto a plate and lay the quail on top. Lastly, spoon over the chimichurri and serve.
Quail with girolle mushrooms and spinach
I love this combination of spinach and girolle mushrooms – it is suave and elegant. I also serve it alongside pigeon – in fact it is a perfect accompaniment to any not-too-strongly flavoured game.
500g/1lb young spinach leaves
2 tbsp unsalted butter
500g/1lb girolles, well cleaned
1 garlic clove, peeled and very finely chopped
A few drops of lemon juice
Handful of parsley, finely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to season
Start by cooking the spinach. Rinse the leaves well under cold running water, then place a generous sized saucepan over a medium heat. Add the spinach, in batches if needed, and cook until it has just wilted. Remove to a colander to drain while you cook the girolles, but before adding the spinach to the mushrooms, do squeeze out as much excess water as you can.
Warm the butter in a medium, preferably non-stick, frying pan over a medium heat. Once it has melted, add the mushrooms and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring once or twice. Now add the garlic, lemon juice and parsley, season with a good pinch of salt and plenty of black pepper, and stir in the cooked spinach to warm through. Spoon alongside the roasted quail.