Forget those neat little lozenges of sautéed quail breast. They may be fashionable, says Simon Hopkinson, but all sorts of meats - from oxtail to game to veal - taste better when they're cooked on the bone

"And would Madam enjoy her grouse on, or off, the bone?" That's a question all head waiters will have regularly asked at Bibendum, during the soon-to-expire feathered game season. They will, no doubt, have enquired the same of strapping butch Sirs too, so nancy have husbands, boyfriends, fathers, uncles and brothers become as the years have slipped by. The singular benefit forthcoming from this now all too common, revert-to-kitchen task, is that the carcass stays stove-side and can easily be slipped into a quietly simmering game stockpot, later to be lightly thickened for gravy or soup.

"And would Madam enjoy her grouse on, or off, the bone?" That's a question all head waiters will have regularly asked at Bibendum, during the soon-to-expire feathered game season. They will, no doubt, have enquired the same of strapping butch Sirs too, so nancy have husbands, boyfriends, fathers, uncles and brothers become as the years have slipped by. The singular benefit forthcoming from this now all too common, revert-to-kitchen task, is that the carcass stays stove-side and can easily be slipped into a quietly simmering game stockpot, later to be lightly thickened for gravy or soup.

But it seems a shame that the supposedly oh-so-know-all, full-on-experienced British diner no longer possesses the slightest clue how to go about tackling his or her own grouse, partridge, snipe, or woodcock (well, hardly ever a woodcock, these days, sadly) on his plate at table. You would not believe some of the massacres I have seen; those results of flummoxed diners who have reluctantly given up trying to finish their dinner, fully defeated simply through ignorance over the bone structure of a diminutive, roasted game bird.

So, to combat this burgeoning ineptness - and I see this as nothing less than the most heinous of crimes - over-caring chefs now see fit to remove the breast meat from such birds before cooking, choosing to deftly sauté or grill them as neat little lozenges, so removing in a trice any trace whatsoever of fugitive flavours and aromas that might have been transferred to them from a gut-smeared carcass. The very worst example of this is when that rare woodcock, along with its cousin, the snipe, are so treated - ruined in such an ignorant fashion.

And, while I am on the subject, both the woodcock and snipe are blessed, at all times, with super-clean bottoms. This is due to their obsessive, natural urge to defecate each and every time they leave the ground in flight - which happens quite a lot if you are a woodcock or snipe, I guess, particularly so if the gunman is keenly abroad on your watery patch. But, for the gourmet game consumer, there is a huge benefit to be derived from the regular phobia of these birds, for it allows the good cook to roast the critters, guts intact, providing, all at once, succulence and flavour together with the added bonus of a resultant goo that exudes from its cavity as it roasts. This should then be spread on toast or croutes. All cooks who prepare such game birds in any other way than this should, hopefully, now feel similarly gutted.

But enough of all that! My drift this week is concerned with how all varieties of roasted meat and fowl taste infinitely better when attached to their bones during cooking.

Braised oxtail with onions, anchovy, vinegar and parsley

Serves 4

May I first just say how concerned I was recently to read an article concerning oxtails and the cooking thereof in another Saturday newspaper magazine supplement. For a recipe for "braised oxtail and root vegetable mash" it stipulated "4 large oxtails" with which to feed four people! However, not only would the recipients need to be starved for at least 48 hours previously, I also guess they might need extremely long plates from which to eat them, and also be possessed of knowledge concerning the intricacies of the bone structure of an ox's tail in its entirety: at no point within the recipe had it been thought important to suggest that the oxtails should be sliced into their natural, stubby joints before embarking on the dish.

So, just for the record, one large oxtail is going to yield about three large joints, two medium ones and one or two tiny tail-end pieces. All may be used within the same dish. It would also be rare indeed for a butcher to sell you just the large bits or allow you to leave his premises without first having expertly jointed your tails.

Note: not red onions here, if you please. Do you actually prefer these to the norm? Well, I don't. I blame the River Café girls for this usurpatory march over the perfectly decent and (frankly) tastier white or yellow varieties - in particular, those gorgeous, flat new ones of the Italian spring and summer months. The first River Café Cook Book even specifies red onions in a recipe for risotto alla Milanese, something which surely would never be countenanced in that city, I venture. Red onions are used from beginning to end, it seems, in their otherwise exemplary book. For why?

2 large oxtails, jointed

salt and pepper

flour

a little dripping, or oil and butter mixed

2kg onions, peeled and thinly sliced

3 bay leaves

2tbsp red wine vinegar

2tbsp anchovy essence

4tbsp chopped parsley

Preheat the oven to 275°F/ 140°C/gas mark 1. Season the oxtail and then dust with flour all over. Heat the chosen fat in a deep, cast-iron casserole dish that also has a lid. Gently fry the oxtail on all surfaces until crusted and golden. Remove to a plate.

Tip off all but a couple of tablespoons of the fat. Turn the heat down to almost nothing, lay half of the onions in the bottom of the pot, reintroduce the oxtail in one layer together with the bay leaves and then cover with the rest of the onions. Lay a buttered sheet of greaseproof paper (butter side down) upon the surface and put on the lid. Place in the oven and leave there for 2 hours.

Remove from the oven and pick out the oxtail. Place the pot back on to a moderate heat and stir together the onions, which will now have collapsed to a golden goo. Stir in the anchovy essence, vinegar and parsley and return the oxtail, burying it in the onions. Put the lid back on, return to the oven and cook for a further 30 minutes. Serve directly from the pot, with mashed potatoes.

Roast quails with butter

Serves 2

Let it be understood, here and now, that the taste and savour of the common farmed quail, quietly roasted, could not, under any circumstances, ever be compared to that of the rarely roasted, rarely seen woodcock. Mind you, harking back for a moment to all that ancient merry-making, people have been feasting on quails since Biblical times. But what with all those golden calves, brazen images, fancy dress, Ark of the Covenant and spit-roasted any old thing, the gamely quail possibly spent every spare flight deep in shock and bewilderment.

4 fine quails (Tesco's Finest range offers excellent French quails in packets of two)

a little melted butter and a large knob

salt and pepper

a lemon

Preheat the oven to 425°F/ 220°C/gas mark 7. Brush the quails with melted butter and then season with salt and pepper (the reason for melting the butter is, primarily, to allow the seasoning to stick). Place in a tin and roast for about 20 minutes. Add the knob of butter and squeeze over a generous amount of lemon juice. Baste thoroughly and roast for a further 5 to 7 minutes or so, until the birds are well browned and crisp of skin. Very good eaten with soft polenta or mashed potatoes and a bowl of lightly dressed watercress.

Simple roast veal

Serves 6

Now that it is possible to find home-grown, naturally reared British veal, there seems little excuse for not choosing to search it out and rejoice over the delights of both cooking and eating such a thing. All guilt concerning any moral reasoning has been removed, even though it has long been the case that there are those who both "wholeheartedly disapprove!" yet also eat ris de veau à la crÿme aux monilles that has been ripped from the inside of a Dutch calf, itself having emerged from the inside of a wooden crate.

Note: roasting a joint of meat is, finally, all a matter of taste, touch and timing. As always, experience remains the key here. The resting time - once the joint has been removed from the oven - is, however, almost more important than anything else, particularly when such a meltingly soft cut of meat is concerned. The following guidance regarding time and temperature should give you blush-pink slices of tender, juicy veal.

1 sirloin joint of veal, hewn from the fillet end of the loin, about 2.3-2.5kg in weight and trimmed and chined by the butcher

salt and pepper

olive oil, or dripping that is at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 425°F/ 220°C/gas mark 7. Using a very sharp, small knife, make shallow criss-cross incisions across the surface of the veal fat. Now, using your hands, smear this with a good lubrication of olive oil or dripping, and then further continue this massage all over the rest of the joint until fully shined and slippery. Liberally sprinkle with salt, particularly upon the fatty parts, and then dust with pepper, this time paying more attention to the exposed areas of meat.

Place a solid-bottomed roasting dish (one that will also happily sit upon a high naked flame) over a brisk light and heat a little more oil or dripping until close to smoking hot. Introduce the joint to the dish fat-side down, turn the heat down a touch and then allow to sizzle there for anything up to 10 minutes; at least until the joint's fat is running and its surface is crusted and golden. Heave it up so that it now sits more steadily upon its flat spine bones and then slide it into the oven. Roast for 30 minutes, basting occasionally. Now turn the heat down to 350°F/180°C/gas mark 4, and continue to roast for a further 40-50 minutes or so, not forgetting to baste and also turning the dish around for even heat distribution.

Remove the joint from the oven (while also switching it off and leaving the door ajar), transfer it to another dish and wrap loosely with foil. Return to the waning heat of the oven to keep warm and rest - and for at least 20 minutes, please. Tip off every scrap of fat from the roasting dish into a bowl, allow to settle and then spoon off the fat into the dripping bowl (if applicable). This then enables one to collect the dark brown residue to add to those limpid juices collected during the joint's repose.

Now, following the natural contours of the vertical bones, remove the loin and fillet from the frame as two entire, separate pieces, and carve a slice of each on to hot plates. And, be assured, that meagre mingling of juices will amply moisten and dress the meat rather than swamping it with a separately made, thickened gravy. Serve with expertly made creamed potatoes, nothing more.

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