Gourmandistan’s freezers hold some dark and shameful secrets, many of them involving foodstuffs not normally found in your mass market cookbooks. Steve’s penchant for odd bits of animals leads to small collections of things such as sweetbreads and pig feet, and Michelle’s lifelong hunter father often gifts us with undated and sometimes ill-described parts of former wildlife such as venison, wild turkey and pheasant and recently, two brace of quail. We appreciate and try to use every portion of meat we obtain, yet must now admit that certain well-intentioned projects (e.g. cat food made from some of the nastiest bits) may never come to fruition. It used to be that certain unpleasant or difficult packages could quietly sink to the bottom of our small chest freezer, helpfully hiding until someone (usually Michelle), stirring for stray bacon packs, pulled them up and declared them “too old” to eat. Now, with our new upright freezer, we can see virtually everything—which brings us back to those damn quail.
The birds sat prominently in the basket with our other poultry parts. Quail are lovely things, but generally something we’d rather others prepared for us. Between the buckshot and the itty bitty bodies, wild quail’s ratio of trouble to taste lies way outside Gourmandistan’s acceptable limits for home prep, and we feared this gift would be wasted without even the plausible cover of the old freezer’s oubliette. However, a recently-stumbled-upon 1930 edition of Fannie Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book held a solution that we couldn’t pass up—Quail Pies.
We’re finding more and more that pre-WWII cookbooks hold many interesting solutions to odd food scrap problems. Possibly due to the times, people seemed concerned with finding a use for whatever food was about. The authors were less concerned with “prime cuts” and less afraid to acknowledge where their food came from. As a bonus, the portion sizes from the time before industrial feedlots work well with the smaller animals we buy that were raised locally and humanely. We didn’t totally follow the cookbook’s instructions, reverting in large part to our usual pot pie recipe. But we couldn’t resist Fannie’s direction to make “incisions” in the crust “through which the legs of the bird should extend.” Sure, it took us all day to de-bone and de-buckshot the quail, chop vegetables, make crust, fill pie pans and bake. Along with local peas, carrots and potatoes and some celery and mushrooms, the little quail baked into damn good pies—a good start on visiting old viewpoints about using every scrap of food.
(makes about 4 small, 4-1/2″, pies)Pâte brisée or other sturdy pie crust
4 quail Flour for dredging quail Salt & pepper Olive oil + butter for frying quail 1 onion, chopped 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced 1 or 2 garlic scapes, chopped (optional) 1 stalk celery, cut into bite-sized pieces 2 carrots, sliced into coins
1/2 c. peas 1 small potato, cut into bite-sized pieces a handful of dried porcini mushrooms, reconstituted
3 TB. butter 3 TB. flour
3 c. rich stock*
1/2 cup heavy cream Sherry, to taste
1 TB. cornstarch if necessary, mixed with water
Make the crust, then refrigerate.
Remove breast meat from birds and chop into bite-sized pieces. Then remove legs. Dredge breast meat and legs in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Sauté in a mixture of butter and olive oil in a skillet. Brown the meat quickly, but do not cook fully as it will cook further in the oven. Remove meat from skillet and set aside on a plate.
Add onions to remaining fat in skillet (adding or subtracting fat as needed). Sauté over medium heat until colored, turning often, about 10 minutes. Near end of cooking time, add garlic scapes and garlic slices. Remove from heat.
Boil carrots, potatoes and celery separately in salted water until each is just shy of done. Drain and shock with cold water and set aside.
Melt 3 TB. of butter in a large saucepan. Stir in the flour, adding more butter if needed to absorb it, and cook for a few minutes until flour taste is gone. Pour in stock, stirring over medium heat until smooth. Add parsley and thyme, vegetables and mushrooms. Stir in cream. Season with salt and pepper and sherry to taste. The sauce should be the consistency of a medium béchamel. If the sauce seems too thin, mix together a thick paste of cold water and cornstarch and stir into the mixture.
Place meat in 4 small gratin dishes, but reserve 4 of the quail legs. Pour the sauce and vegetable mixture over. Place a leg in the middle of each dish, bone up.
Divide dough into fourths. Roll each fourth out on a floured piece of waxed paper in a circle slightly larger than the containers you are baking in. With a knife, make an X in the center of each crust. Center the crusts over the pies, with the quail leg sticking out through the X. Flute the edges over the rim of the dishes.
Bake pies in a 400° oven until golden brown, about 30 minutes. It is a good idea to bake on a cookie sheet, in case the filling boils over. If you make pies ahead of time and refrigerate (which you can), baking may take a bit longer.
*You can, as we did, follow Fannie Farmer’s instructions and make a stock with the quail bones simmered along with some onion, carrots and celery and a bay leaf. The stock was a bit thin, though, and we ended up supplementing it with some chicken broth.