The title of this post is adapted from a joke I learned from my father. It tells of an old country boy who leaves North Carolina and goes to the Big City. While there, he goes to a fancy restaurant, where he orders “Pheasant Under Glass”. When it comes, he looks at it with surprise, saying “Well that ain’t nothing but ole quail with gravy on toast!”
I recall hearing this joke moderately often, particularly around times when he would cook quail for dinner. The lesson I was supposed to learn (I hope) was that growing up on a farm in rural North Carolina exposed us to eating plain good food that big city folk thought was fine and fancy.
In those days, we hunted quail, not only on our own farm, but all over. We had a couple of good bird dogs, and made much of the hunting process. Hunting as a child was where I learned the roots of my conservationism. If you kill all the quail in a covey this year, there won’t be any birds next year. Don’t hunt all the rabbits. Don’t fish out your pond. Leave a little. “Leave a little” as a philosophy applies to a lot of places and one I have grown to appreciate more as I get older, not just in wildlife conservation. If you want a good idea of what it was like to grow up like this, you should go read The Old Man and the Boy, by Robert Roark, or anything by Havilah Babcock.
My father cooked all the fancy cooking we did in our house when I was being raised. He had been a cook in the army, and I carry around his cooking stories from then (and other times) and repeat them. He is honestly one of the best cooks I’ve known in my life, and I expect that over time I’ll have plenty of opportunity to relate herein many of the stories I learned from him. I grew up thinking that “Women might cook day-to-day, during the week kinda, but if you wanted fancy cooking, the men did it”. I don’t know why I thought this when I knew good and well that most of the good cooks I knew were women, like my grandmothers Goldie and Josephine, Ms. Gill, Ola, Miss Lula, and other women in the communities where I lived. Regardless, it is an attitude that I retain to this day, and grew up thinking it was required that I myself be a good cook.
If we were going to have a good family dinner for a special occasion, like as not we’d have quail if there were any in the freezer. After hunting, we’d pick and skin the quail, then salt them in a pan of water overnight, then freeze them. Since I became an adult, I’ve learned all about brining meats, and the various reasons why you might, but we called ourselves “doing it to get the blood out”.
Use 2 quail for every person you are serving. Last night I did 4 quail. I’m gonna presume that most folks don’t kill their own quail, and buy them instead. In this case, brine the quail for a few hours before starting, then rinse them and pat them dry.
Brown the quail in a hot skillet, about 6 minutes. I used about 4 tbl of lard. Take the quail out and set them aside.
Make a roux of butter and flour. I used 4 tbls of butter added to what remained in the pan when I took the quail out. Then I poured in maybe 1/4 cup of chicken broth to help deglaze it, and scraped the bottom of the pan with a spoon until the butter was all melted and browning. Then I added flour, a tablespoon at a time. I probably put close to a 1/4 cup before I thought there was enough.
(Clearly I need practice and more training in how to shoot photos of food. I get way too many pictures that a bit blurry or out of focus, even with my automatic focus el cheapo pink Kodak digital camera.)
Brown the roux, stirring constantly. This will go from golden to burned very quickly, so if you put the spoon down and go do anything else, it will be burned when you get back. As my father says, “Have the water at hand, if you have to go get it, it’s too late.” Add 1 cup of water, vegetable broth, or chicken stock per pair of quail, so for 4 quail you’d add 2 cups. Stir until you have a nice fluffy thick gravy, adding salt and pepper to taste. Add more liquid if necessary. Pour the gravy on the quail in an oven ready dish with a lid (put the lid on) sufficient to cover the quail, and bake in the oven at 300 degrees for 30-40 minutes. Then turn the oven up to 400 for 10 minutes and remove. I let it rest while I drained the vegetables, assembled the plates, etc.
I use a lot of pepper. I dashed pepper over the browning quail, I put a layer of pepper over the gravy and stirred it in, and I sprinkled pepper on it yet again as I put it in the oven. It would not be a misnomer to call my gravy “pepper gravy”.
I am a lot more careful with the salt, but I add pepper the way most TV chefs add salt, as in they will say “Add 1 teaspoon salt” to a dish where you can clearly see that they are adding more like 1 tablespoon, or more. This has evolved into one of my pet peeves, actually. Recipes That Lie, because people modify the recipe as they write it down, molding it to what they think other folks expectations are, or because they want to appear healthier than they actually cook, or because it violates their religious doctrine in some way I don’t know. I am taking the pledge to try to tell the truth about ingredients and quantities in this blog.
Tonight, we served the quail with traditional accompaniment; i.e., mashed potatoes, southern biscuits, cream peas, and steamed broccoli. I included a couple pictures of the biscuits as well as 2 tomato biscuits that I made for breakfast this morning.