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 café 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.

Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’s Polenta Cake

from The River Cafe Cookbook

In September, 2006, I ate for the first time at the Anchor & Hope, a gastropub just steps away from the Southwark tube station in London. I was with three friends, Ann, Allison and Lorna. We met for a late lunch, which explains why we were able to be seated relatively quickly. Usually the Anchor & Hope is packed to the rafters. The four of us handled our food choices as all my food friends do: each of us ordered on our own but no one ordered the same thing. When the food arrived, we took two bites and passed the plates on to someone else. The food here was the best restaurant fare I’d had thus far in London. The owner-chefs had left the River Cafe to start their own establishment in much the same way Chez Panisse serves as the nursery for many Bay Area chefs. I’ve lost the notes I took while there, but all four of us came away with one dish etched indelibly on our brains. The polenta cake exceeded all expectations, because we were dubious that any cake made from polenta could be anything but heavy. How wrong we were.

Back in northern California, I started looking through my books and on-line for a recipe that would duplicate the experience. Nothing seemed quite right. In the end, I went straight to the source. I emailed the Anchor & Hope. After about a week, they sent me the recipe by attachment. The attachment turned out to be a digital image someone had taken of two smudged pages in an open cookbook. The page was so obscured by water stains that the quantities of the ingredients had been penned in by hand. I was very touched by the effort someone at the other end had made to supply me with the recipe I desired. For that, they won my loyalty.

The polenta cake recipe looked simple. It was not.

Here’s what they direct you to do:

450 g (1 lb) unsalted butter, softened
450 g (1 lb) caster (baker’s, or ultra-fine) sugar
450 g (1 lb) almond flour
2 tsp good vanilla essence
6 eggs
zest of 4 lemons
Juice of 1 lemon
225 g (8 oz) polenta flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 325.

Butter and flour a 12-inch cake tin.

Beat the butter and sugar together until pale & light. Stir in the ground almonds and vanilla. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Fold in the lemon zest and lemon juice, the polenta, and baking powder and salt.

Spoon into the prepared tin & bake in the preheated oven for 45 – 50 mins or until set. The cake will be deep brown on top.

Here’s what happened the first three times I tried it before I succeeded:

The first problem was the pan. A 12-inch cake pan? It occurred to me that I hadn’t ever seen one that size. I have 8-inch and 9-inch pans, but 12? What’s more, I had a hard time finding one that large. I finally tracked one down at jbprince.com for $18. I figured it was worth the investment. Pan problem solved. Ann and I made it once in London in smaller pans. 9-inch pans required considerable more diligence in the cooking time, but it worked.

Almond flour? I looked everywhere before I asked my friends in London where they got theirs. Apparently “almond flour” is another way of saying “ground almonds”. I paid a small fortune for a pound of skinless almonds.

The polenta turned out to be the next issue that needed resolving. Fine polenta? Or stone-ground organic polenta flour? I’ve made it with both and with cornmeal. My preference was for the organic. I enjoyed the crunchy, large granules of the cake crumb. But I suspect this will be a matter of taste for most people.

When we made the cake in London, we decided to increase the amount of zest and that turned out to be a very good move.

Cooking time will vary depending on how how your oven is. It’s worth being patient until the center of the cake is fairly firm. If a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, it’s done.

Last thoughts:

I will make this cake again and probably again. Using the 12-inch pan means it’s a good cake for a large group of people. I’ve served it with sauteed rhubarb reduced with creme de cassis. The ideal accompaniment with the cake is a tart fruit made syrupy in some kind of liqueur and perhaps whipped cream.

I went back to the Anchor & Hope in March, 2007. Ann & Jonathan decided to try out their 4-month old baby’s gastronomic skills in public. The three of us ate an amazing dish of pork from a type of English pig called a Lop. Ava was extremely annoyed at being left out of the feast, so the experiment ended early. A week later at Gordon Ramsey’s sleek, minimalist, expensive tapas restaurant in Grosvenor Square, she felt much more at home. Since then, Ava has taken precosciously to food and expensive restaurants like a food critic in training.