Cost: $3-3.50 a bird
Storage: Store refrigerated for several days or frozen for up to one month
Alternatives: Small poussin, duck, or game hen (make sure to adjust cooking times according to size of bird)
Associate finger-licking barbecue with the South if you will, but for huntin'-lovin’ Texans, quail really is just as locally iconic as a Holstein. Short and squat (in wing, bill, and tail), these fowl offer chefs a stunning whole-bird presentation and less-gamey, more approachable flavor than their feathered counterparts (duck, pigeon, cornish hen). Although the wild frontier birds have dropped in population in recent years due to habitat changes, the availability of farm-raised varieties means we’re still tasting them all over the South, wood-grilled, batter-fried, and slathered in spice.
Quail are indigenous to the Lone Star State—not the dry dessert of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but a lush landscape that proffers floral honey and wild foraging expeditions. And it isn’t uncommon to see them, the bobwhite variety to be specific, pecking around for seeds and insects, or to hear their signature two-note call (what some might call their Southern twang) in the Texan wilderness. And while plenty of hunters (and adventurous, locally-grown chefs) head out in search of these birds, several Texan farms raise a commercial variety to keep pantries stocked. The commercial quail industry is small, however (only a handful of farms span the United States), which is why it’s rare to see the bird outside the white table cloth setting north of the Mason-Dixon.
But down South you can find this game bird everywhere from paper boats to cast iron skillets. “I was raised in Wisconsin, and we didn’t hunt quail. It was more common to have pheasant,” says Chef Steven McHugh, who features a comforting Fried Texas Quail on his Lüke menu. “It wasn’t until I moved to New Orleans that I met people who hunted quail. It’s all about what you grow up eating.”
Drizzled with local honey, McHugh’s battered-fried version takes advantage of the slightly larger birds he’s found after moving to San Antonio two years ago (versus the smaller variety he sourced in Louisiana). “These quail are so much bigger, they don’t dry out,” he says. “Encasing it in the crust helps keep it juicy.” After soaking the birds in buttermilk, McHugh coats them in seasoned flour and gives them a light dunk in frying oil to create a golden, crispy crunch. Buttermilk ranch dressing—Texan ketchup if you will—adds a cool rush to the crunch.
An easy-to-love, easy-to-cook bird, quail doesn’t require too much fuss. But chefs have to keep in mind its pint-size. Deep-frying is often the culprit behind dried-out poultry, but McHugh’s buttermilk marinade and flash-fry help create moist meat. Austin’s Chef Andrew Francisco, who features quail on his Olivia menu every night, prefers a quick skin-side sauté and then a zealous butter basting of the breast. Taking inspiration from Morocco, his summertime version pairs a spice-rubbed bird with chickpea-carrot purée. “It’s in between chicken and duck,” says Francisco. Less gamey than duck, quail has a natural sweetness, and is entirely comprised of dark meat, making it a versatile protein that can work with everything from the rich flavors of truffles to the floral scents of lavender. Which is why Chef Bryce Gilmore of Austin’s Barley Swine is able to combine the smokiness of the wood grill with a dig-right-in spice marinade for his quail-meets-casual dish.
Versatile, flavorful, and presentation wow factor—a lot of oomph for a little bird. So yes, the egg may come before the chicken, but quail (eggs and all), may just push chicken off its place de rigueur in menus outside the South.