Delicate and petite, lean and simple, quail defines honest, rustic cooking. These small birds cook quickly and need little more than a few floral spices and fresh herbs to stand on their own as a main course or starter. Quail doesn't have much fat in the breast and thigh, so a quick dip in buttermilk before cooking tenderizes the meat just enough to let you pick it off the bone easily. Oven-roasting is the way to go with quail, and if you're feeling a bit ambitious, pair it with a crisp, chilled glass of Riesling to round out the flavors on the palate.
Cover the quail with cultured buttermilk in a food storage container and marinate it for about two hours. Keep the quail company with whole spices and herbs while it marinates, if desired. Floral spices, such as allspice berries, juniper berries and rosemary sprigs, always flavor game birds well.
Remove the quail from the marinade and pat it dry inside and out with paper towels. Let the bird sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
Coat the quail with a light sheen of oil, just enough to help the salt and pepper stick to it. Season it to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper inside and out.
Stuff the bird's cavity with fresh herb sprigs and about 1 tablespoon of butter, if desired. You'll rejoice when the aroma of quail intermingled with fresh sage, rosemary and thyme fills your kitchen. Tie the legs together with kitchen twine. Heat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Heat a few tablespoons of fat in a heavy bottomed pan over medium heat. Clarified butter or light oils, such as sunflower, take to high temperatures well and produce a good sear.
Place the quail in the pan and sear it on all sides until golden-brown, about four minutes total. Turn the bird in the pan with tongs to get an even sear.
Set the quail in a shallow dish and place it in the oven. If you use a cast-iron skillet, place the skillet directly in the oven.
Roast the quail for 15 minutes, or until it reaches 165 F in the thigh and breast. Remove the quail from the oven when checking the temperature with a meat thermometer. Rest the quail on a plate or serving dish for 10 minutes before slicing or serving.
One quail per person makes for a suitable starter, and two per person is enough for a main dish.
When shopping for quail, select clean-smelling ones with cream-colored skin that look plump for their size. Go with organic, free-range if possible.