David Tanis’s Roasted Quail with Grilled Radicchio and Creamy Polenta

dsc04044from A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, pp. 167-70.

Ever since I saw an approving review of Chez Panisse head chef David Tanis’s first volume of recipes in Gourmet Magazine a few months ago, I decided this would be my next cookbook purchase. It wasn’t, but it was quite literally the next best purchase of a cookbook I made. Tanis divides his book into seasonal menus, which is not particularly convenient for browsing — if I’m looking for a recipe by main ingredient, I’d like to thumb through a section on that main ingredient. I quibble. Few cookbooks have as many appealing and seemingly achievable dishes as this one. He concentrates on simple but creative preparations of good ingredients. Without question, the book is worth its price. Reading through it has also inspired me to return soon to Chez Panisse to taste the cooking one more time.

And that adventure looks more likely than ever now that Rachel, the daughter of my good friend Sherry, has been hired there to bus tables. Apparently, most employees at Chez Panisse begin as busers. Rachel will clear and set up plates for the cooks in the kitchen for a while and then gradually make the transition to the dining rooms. After that, she has the option of moving on to the wait-staff and possibly beyond that. She reports that the working conditions in the restaurant and cafĂ© reflect Alice Water’s generosity and commitment to a healthy and content workplace. In addition to full benefits, she has one meal and one glass of wine each shift she works, significant discounts on books, and an even more significant one at Kermit Lynch’s wine store. Alice Waters has made her restaurant a very good and supportive place to work.

Tanis divides the recipe into three parts, which is fitting since he spends half of every year in Caesar’s Gaul:

Serves 8 -10

16 semiboneless quail, about 1/4 lb each

salt and pepper

Olive oil

2 Tb chopped thyme leaves

2 Tb chopped sage leaves

6 garlic clove, thinly sliced

16 thin slices pancetta or bacon

Creamy Polenta (recipe follows)

Oven-Grilled Radicchio (recipe follows)

Season each quail inside and out with salt and pepper and drizzle with a few drops of olive oil.

In a small bowl, mix together the thyme, sage, and garlic. Put a small spoonful of the mixture inside each bird. Wrap each bird with a slice of pancetta. Put in a baking dish and refrigerate for up to several hours, or overnight. Bring to room temperature before cooking.

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Put the quail breast side down in a shallow roasting pan (two pans side by side is easier) and slide onto the oven’s top rack.

When the birds begin to sizzle, after 8 minutes or so, turn them breast side up. Continue roasting for 10 to 12 minutes more, until the quail are nicely browned and crisp and the juices run clear when the thigh is probed with the tip of a knife.

Remove the birds from the oven and let them rest about 10 minutes, loosely covered.

Pour the polenta onto a large platter. Lay the quail on the polenta and spoon the juices over the birds. Surround with the grilled radicchio.

Creamy polenta:

Use 4 parts water to 1 part polenta. Once made, the polenta can sit for another hour.

Bring 12 cups water to a boil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over a high flame. Add 2 tsp salt and 3 cups stone-ground polenta and stir well with a sturdy whisk. When the water returns to the boil and the polenta begins to thicken, after a minute or two, turn the flame to low. Continue to stir while the polenta gets its bearings. After a few minutes, it will be bubbling very gently, with the occasional ploop. Stir the polenta every 10 minutes or so. If it seems to be getting too thick, splash a little milk on top and stir it in — do this occasionally, or as necessary.

After 45 minutes or so, the polenta should be nearly cooked and ready for tasting. Spoon out a small amount on a plate and let it cool slightly — hot polenta straight from the pot is likely to burn the roof of your mouth. You’re looking for a lush, corn flavor and a texture that’s smooth, not grainy.

Now add salt and pepper to taste, and another splash of milk, and stir well. Cook for 15 minutes longer, then taste again. Stir in a stick of softened butter. Turn off the heat and let the polenta rest, covered, for 15 minutes before serving. Covered, it will stay warm and soft for up to an hour.

Oven-grilled radicchio:

For each serving, count on 2 wedges of radicchio; 4 small heads will yield 8 servings.

Peel any damaged or tough outer leaves from the radicchio. Cut into thick wedges and place in an earthenware gratin dish or shallow baking dish. Drizzle the wedges with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Bake on the top shelf for 10 to 15 minutes, until well browned and nearly, but not quite, charred. The radicchio can be cooked up to several hours in advance, then reheated in the hot oven when the birds come out.

How I set about reconstructing his recipe:

Fresh quail can be ridiculously expensive ($5 a piece at my local market!), but I have found frozen packs of farmed quail in the specialty frozen sections of up-scale supermarkets. What’s more, I ignored the “semiboneless.” I don’t mind picking up and gnawing on the little birds and neither do most of my friends.

As is clear in the photo, I more than halved the recipe. I had two friends to dinner to eat six quail. They’re appreciative but not big eaters, so I had one quail left over.

I prepared the quail the night before. When I began to cook, however, I grilled the radicchio, took it out and covered with foil, and then a little over one hour before I calculated I would remove the quail from the oven, I started to make the polenta. The 10-minutes stirring intervals make coordinating the three elements easy.

Because I suspect my oven is running cold these days, I preheated the oven to 475 and then reduced it to 425 when I put the birds in to roast. The cooking times worked perfectly, although the pancetta and quail did not brown as much as I had hoped. Nor did the quail render much juice.

For the polenta: I used 2 cups of polenta in 8 cups of water. It drank up nearly a 1/3 cup of whole milk before it reached a creamy state. I cooked the polenta on the lowest flame. After the polenta had cooked for 45 minutes, I put the quail in the oven.

Final thoughts:

Tanis is absolutely correct when he insists in the recipe’s preamble on cooking the polenta for a full hour. The grains softened and dissolved and the polenta came out creamier than I’ve ever made it before. I may use less milk next time.

Next time, I may substitute Cornish game hens for the quail. They’re cheaper and they are likely to render more juices.

I also may play with the garlic-thyme-sage mixture. If I roast hens instead, perhaps the herbs would do well under the skin next to the breast meat.

We drank a Cotes du Rhone but switched to a 2006 Pinot Noir from San Luis Obispo (Tolosa), which we all agreed flattered the food.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Marinated turkey breast with cumin, coriander, and white wine

from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, p. 126.

As soon as I settled in to my home, after returning from Bordeaux by way of London, I decided to cook from one of the two cookbooks I brought back. I’ve been waiting for Yotam Ottolenghi’s first cookbook, published earlier this year, and so was very pleased that Ann and Jonathan in London gave me a copy for my birthday while I was visiting them. As the post I wrote on his restaurant makes clear, I love his way with food. Reading the cookbook’s introduction made me even more enthusiastically supportive. Until I read it, I had had no idea that Yotam, an Israeli Jew born in Jerusalem and raised in Tel Aviv, only met his business partner, Sami Tamimi, a Palestinian Israeli, born in Jerusalem and raised in Tel Aviv, in London in 1999. They are the same age and both gay. That’s the kind of heartwarming background to a food business that makes people want to be loyal, because the partnership and friendship between Ottolenghi and Tamimi amount to a sum that is bigger and better than its parts.

If only they had found a good editor to work with them. I’ve now made four recipes from the book. Although I still am glad I have the book, the recipes need more interpretation than many other books. The flavors, the ingredients, and the presentations make it worthwhile. I present here the recipe that turned out best. When I have made the other ones I’ve tried again, I’ll rework them into a post.

Ultimately, Ottolenghi and Tamimi tease us with an abundance of appealing recipes. But how bridgeable is the gap between the excellent food I have so much enjoyed at the restaurant and the seemingly delicious food promised by what’s written on the page remains to be seen. I will work hard on it.

So, here is the recipe as it appears in the book:

4 tbsp mint leaves

4 tbsp parsley leaves

4 tbsp coriander leaves [cilanto]

1 garlic clove, peeled

60 ml [about 3 oz] lemon juice

125 ml [about 4 oz] white wine

1/2 tsp cumin

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

1/2 small organic or free-range turkey breast (about 1 kg)

1. Put all the ingredients except the turkey breast in a food processor or blender and process for 1-2 minutes to get a smooth marinade. Put the turkey in a non-metallic container and pour the marinade over it. Massage the marinade into the meat, cover the container and leave in the fridge for 24 hours. Make sure the turkey is immersed in the sauce.

2. Preheat the oven to 220 C [425 F], Gas Mark 7. Remove the turkey from the marinade (keep the marinade for later) and put it on a roasting tray. Place in the oven and roast for 15 minutes, then reduce them temperature to 200 C [400 F], Gas Mark 6. Continue to cook for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature again to 180 C [350 F] Gas Mark 4. Cook until the turkey is done — another 30-45 minutes. To check, stick a small knife all the way into the centre; it should come out hot. If the meat goes dark before it is ready, cover it will foil.

3. To prepare the sauce, heat up the turkey marinade in a small saucepan and simmer for 15 minutes, until reduced by about half. Taste and season with some more salt and pepper.

4. Remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes. Slice it thinly and serve with warm sauce.

5. To serve cold, leave the meat to cool completely and then slice. Adjust the seasonings of the sauce once it is cold and serve on the side.

I translated the above instructions to really mean:

First of all, I first wondered what 4 tbsp of the herbs meant. 4 tbsp before or after mincing. I decided that the list of ingredients really should have read, “4 tbsp finely chopped mint leaves,” and so on.

I used half a turkey breast and thought it more than sufficient for the amount of marinade.

The next bit that struck me as odd was the amount of liquid in proportion to the chopped herbs. Put together, it made for a very liquidy marinade. For this reason, I decided not to pour it over the turkey in a pyrex baking dish, because the turkey breast would have simply sat in a puddle of wine and lemon juice. I put the meat in a gallon-sized plastic zip-lock bag and poured the marinade in after it. I sat the bag as upright as I could keep it propped in the fridge so that the turkey was immersed.

Another note: double the cumin. Half a teaspoon vanished into the thicket of sharper flavors.

I roasted the turkey in a pyrex baking dish. It didn’t brown as well as I would have liked. And I decided that the suggested method of checking for doneness was a bit dumb. A meat thermometer told all I needed to know. I took it out when it reached 150.

The sauce needed something else to make it more interesting. I threw in a pat of butter at the end, in the hope that it would make it richer, but it didn’t.

If I make this dish again, I would:

  • increase the cumin
  • would cook it for half an hour at the starting temperature of 425, skipping the reduction to 400 F. This might help with the browning.
  • cook the meat until the thermometer ran 140 and then let it rise on the counter another ten degrees.
  • reduce the sauce and consider adding additional ingredients: shallots, a dab of mustard?

Coming Soon… Slow-grilled Leg of Lamb, Bordeaux, Paula Wolfert, Sophia Loren and pizza

For the months of September and October, my goals cannot be described as other than modest. I intend to grill a bone-in leg of lamb slowly over coals. That will be next weekend’s posting. And then I fly off to London for one night and then to Bordeaux, France, for 11 days of working in the archives and hunting up affordable places to eat. Blogging from Bordeaux will be easy. Finding affordable places to eat in the land of the euro will present me with a challenge. But I’ve been there before and so have a head-start. Two or three nights in London on the way home will give me an opportunity to find new culinary jewels. When I return home at the end of September, right around the time the evenings grow cool, I know I will be in the mood to explore Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwestern France, a book that does not suit hot weather but is sure to please in the fall. During the same month, I plan to give Sophia Loren’s cookbooks a chance. Her two books look old-fashioned. But do they contain untried treasures? We’ll see. Finally, after whining just a little about Robert Masullo’s pizza dough — which, I hasten to add, was excellent on the second try — I’m going to work on pizza dough and toppings this fall.

So, there’s lot to look forward to. At least, there is from my point of view.