Something fairly new to the farmers markets, and still flying under the radar it seems, is the availability of quail — both the dressed birds and quail eggs. The birds are raised sustainably on a ranch in the Carissa Plains area of Paso Robles and are available at Old Creek Ranch. Quail eggs have been available at the market for about a year, and are raised locally and brought in by Darlene Mora of Mello-Dy Ranch.
Although some people know about quail eggs from sushi bars, many don’t know much else. Quail is not that common in home kitchens or restaurants, and information, other than recipes, is sparse. However, I can tell you one thing for sure about these diminutive foods — they are packed with big flavor.
A New Breed of Quail — Texas A & M Coturnix
The quail and the eggs at the markets are not from our California state bird. In fact, they are from a different family altogether — a cross developed by Texas A & M called White Coturnix specially bred to be the perfect quail for consumption. This new cross was based on the Japanese Coturnix quail that are larger than our wild California quail, and are white or white with some black spots.
Although they can fly, their wings cannot bear them a great distance and can quickly become prey if they are not kept in protected pens. They live in large cages and are fed organic feed and whatever they can scratch for.
The birds are around 6 inches high and average 6-8 ounces of meat, which is a sizeable quail. One could be served for an entrée. These quail are much larger and more robust than the quail found in 8 or 12 packs in some stores with much better flavor. The quail from Old Creek Ranch have a fine texture when cooked, and a deep flavor that is a little “wilder” than chicken without any of the “liverish” quality the other quail can have, especially if overcooked the least bit. The flavor is a cross between free-range chicken leg meat and pheasant, only a little more delicate.
When cooking quail, just remember you can always put it back on the flame, but you want to eat it cooked through or it will be chewy or rubbery and not very pleasant. Fortunately, cooking quail (and their eggs) is very simple and the rewards are tasty.
Prepping Quail for Cooking
When working with quail, keep in mind that cooking them whole is more difficult than if you cut them open and flatten them. The easiest way to prep quail for cooking is to use a strong pair of scissors or poultry shears.
Trim the end of the drumsticks if needed, then snip off the last two parts of the wings. Then, run the scissors along one side of the spine, then go back and cut it out. Reserve the trimmings for making sauces.
Lay the quail breast down on a cutting board and gently but firmly push down on the breastbone to flatten the quail. Use the scissors to trim any excess skin, then turn over the bird and arrange the legs so the thighs are on the outside and the drumsticks line up next to the point of the breast.
If you want them to retain this shape while cooking, run a toothpick or skewer through the “knees” and breast of the bird to fix everything in position. This method, by the way, is called a “spatchcocked” bird. In this position the bird can be grilled, sautéed, or broiled easily, and it is easy to tell when it is done; the breast will feel a little springy and firm at the same time.
Darlene from Mello-Dy Ranch currently has about 130 laying hens. From incubation to hatching is 17 days, and quail reach maturity (laying age) in just 6 weeks, and each hen can produce 300 eggs per year. Although small, quail eggs pack a lot of flavor and a lot of protein. The eggs, while 1/5 the size of the standard chicken egg, have a much higher nutritional value. One Coturnix quail egg (10-17 grams) has 3 to 5 times the nutrition value of a 55 gram chicken egg!
Cooking with Quail Eggs
I found the flavor of a hard-boiled quail egg to be a little sweet with a nutty flavor, along with a nice “eggy” quality. It would be easy to snack on these. They fry up like any other egg, only faster, and are a great size for poaching for individual salads, and for garnishing things like toasts with caviar or bruschetta with greens in them. They are also the perfect size for making small Scotch eggs as an appetizer, or devilled eggs also. Sautéing the tops of the devilled eggs, or running them under a broiler gives them a nice crunch which contrasts with rest of the egg. Quail eggs are commonly used in sushi bars where the soft richness of the yolk makes a fine contrast to the firm and salty, oceanic elements of fish roes. (See: How to Boil a Perfect Quail Egg.)
Honestly, the hardest thing about cooking with quail eggs is peeling them, and that only requires patience and a bit of fingernail or thin sharp paring knife. If you wish to open a raw quail egg, use a paring knife or adjustable utility knife to cut through the shell and tough membrane below, then tear the egg open. They do not crack like chicken eggs.
Photo courtesy of Joseph Stallone at www.backyardchickens.com