Quail: the finest of fowl play for your dinner table

WHEN company is coming, consider game birds for a very special dish. Once in the category of fancy courses such as Pheasant Under Glass, Pressed Duck, and Quail on Toast, smaller birds are now being raised on game farms and are more available to the home cook. Although small birds have become more plentiful, they still don't turn up on the average dinner table as much as they did at the turn of the century. At that time, game birds were commonplace on the menus of all fine restaurants.

Instead of three or four types of beef, the Victorians and Edwardians could choose from many varieties of wild fowl, such as plover, teal, woodcock, mallard, and goose - all of which offered a change from roast turkey and chicken.

Today, without a country friend to bring a brace of game birds once in a while, few of us have the opportunity to taste or cook wild game. But the birds raised on game farms can offer a happy compromise. Quail ranks among the finest.

``The quail is everything that is most delightful and tempting,'' writes Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in ``The Physiology of Taste.''

Mort Berenson, who raises the birds on his game farms in Massachusetts, agrees. Of the two types of quail he breeds, the Coturnix has all dark meat and the Northern Bob White has both white and dark.

Quail season starts in early spring and continues through December, Mr. Berenson says. Because they are so small - only three to four ounces - aging the meat does not improve the flavor.

Berenson sells his quail at his shop in Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace, along with partridge, goose, pheasant, fresh turkey, Muscovy duck, smoked meats, and lamb.

Because of its small size, quail makes a wonderfully easy dinner for the smaller family of one or two people. It allows the portion planning to be precise and avoids the question of leftovers.

Quail cook well with several methods. Because they have little fat, butter or lard is needed for moisture.

Roast Quail With Watercress Butter 1 stick sweet butter, softened 1/3 cup finely chopped watercress 2 shallots, minced 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste Freshly ground pepper 4 quail 1/3 cup chicken stock Watercress for garnish

Put butter, watercress, shallots, lemon juice, salt, and pepper in bowl of food processor.

Combine thoroughly. Scrape flavored butter into a crock and keep at room temperature.

(Or store in refrigerator, and allow it to come to room temperature before continuing.)

Wipe quail inside and out with damp cloth. Put a small pat of watercress butter inside each cavity and truss birds with kitchen string to keep legs close to body. Rub a tablespoon of flavored butter over breast and legs and set in a shallow roasting pan.

Roast in an oven preheated to 450 degrees F. about 20 minutes, basting several times, until brown and tender.

Remove strings and arrange on a warm serving platter.

Add chicken stock to juices in pan and stir to dissolve any sediment.

Reduce liquid until well concentrated, then swirl in remaining watercress butter. Spoon sauce over the quail.

Garnish platter with watercress, and serve.

Broiled Quail With Orange and Bacon 4 quail 1/2 cup orange juice 1 shallot, minced 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley 1/4 teaspoon dried sage Salt and pepper to taste 4 strips bacon Orange wedges and parsley springs for garnish

Split quail along length of backbone on one side and open them out flat with the legs pointing inward. Press lightly so they will stay flat. Mix together in a shallow pan orange juice, shallot, parsley, sage, salt, and pepper. Marinate quail in mixture at least 2 hours, turning once or twice.

Drain quail and reserve marinade.

Arrange birds skin side up in one layer in an ovenproof pan.

Cut bacon across in half and lay pieces over quail breasts and legs. Not too close to flame, depending on intensity of broiler, cook birds under preheated broiler about 12 minutes, basting with marinade, until bacon is crisp and the quail golden brown.

To test, prick breast at thickest part to see if juices run clear, rather than pink. Watch closely to cook them to the right point and no more. Arrange on a warm platter or serving plates, garnished with bacon, orange wedges, and parsley.

Braised Quail With Vegetables 6 tablespoons butter 4 quail 1 large potato, peeled and cut into potato balls (about 12 balls) 2 ounces fresh button mushrooms, whole 1/2 cup freshly shelled peas 3 scallions, green tops included, cut into 1/4-inch diagonal slices 1 cup chicken stock 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme 1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley Salt and pepper

Put a tablespoon of butter into each quail cavity and truss birds loosely to body with kitchen twine. Melt 11/2 tablespoons butter in pan and saut'e quail quickly on all sides to brown. Place on backs in an ovenproof casserole.

Add potato balls to pan and saut'e them, stirring often, until they start to brown. Add mushrooms. When they start to color, add scallions.

Saut'e 1 minute more, stirring, then transfer vegetables to casserole around quail. Pour stock into pan and stir up to dissolve sediment in bottom. Pour over quail. Add herbs and seasonings.

Cover casserole tightly and cook in oven preheated to 350 degrees F. for 20 minutes.

Remove strings and put quail on warm serving platter or plates - and with slotted spoon arrange vegetables on the side. Over high heat, reduce liquid remaining in pan until concentrated.

You may want to add a little beurre mani'e to thicken it.

Rub together 1 tablespoon each flour and softened butter to make a paste. Then stir it into hot liquid.

Swirl in last of butter, spoon sauce over quail, serve.

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