I love Sunday morning at the markets. It's not as hectic as on other days, and most people are happily ambling from stall to stall with more time than they usually have. But you can always pick the chefs; they're the ones who don't carry a list and walk at a fast pace, weaving in and out of the crowd with purpose.
On one particularly cold, grey morning at the market, six plump quail catch my eye. They are shiny and pink and look impeccably fresh. I get chatting to the butcher, and he mentions that quail aren't very popular with home cooks; they are mostly sold to the fast-walking chefs. I wonder why that is?
I absolutely adore cooking and eating quail. They're delectably small and plump, with richly flavoured tender dark meat. And as I stand in the market queue, waiting for my quail to be packaged, I run through the array of possibilities for preparing and serving my quail for dinner that night. Fried golden with Sichuan salt and pepper and a black vinegar dipping sauce? Stuffed with spicy chorizo sausage or wrapped in pancetta and roasted? How about barbecued and served with a garlicky sauce? Or perhaps simmered in a jungle curry with kaffir lime and chilli? It's a meat that works with just about any cuisine or method of cooking. And quail aren't expensive - at about $3.50 for each 200gm bird, they're great for entertaining, as they're ample for a generous entrée or small main course.
But possibly the greatest benefit of quail is that they're extremely forgiving. There's no need to baste them or to wrap them in foil to protect their juices; simply lather them in butter and throw them in the oven, or marinate them in herbs and olive oil before grilling them on the barbecue, and they'll remain wonderfully succulent.
Cooking quail is simple, but there are a few steps you can take to ensure you bring out the best qualities in the meat. I always season the bird with salt early in the process, as salt draws out the natural flavours of an ingredient - you'll always get better flavour in a dish if you season at the beginning of the cooking process.
If I'm frying the quail, I like to dust the bird lightly in rice flour or cornflour first. I use a quality oil suited to high temperatures, such as peanut or vegetable oil, and I ensure the oil is very hot so that the skin crisps immediately when the quail hits the pan.
If you're planning to grill quail, then it's best to flatten the birds - this is easy. Their bones are tiny, so a pair of scissors or a kitchen knife is all that's needed to cut the carcass. Simply cut along both sides of the spine, open up the quail and flatten them out. Push down with your hand until you hear the rib cage crack. There you have it, they're ready to be marinated. You can remove the breastbone and rib cage, but I never bother doing this because quail - like all meat - cooked on the bone is infinitely more tasty than filleted. When the barbecue is hot, lay the birds skin side-down and grill them until golden brown, before turning and cooking them briefly on the other side. They are ready as soon as the skin can be pushed away from the bone of the leg.
Quail is lovely when the breast is still pink but the leg meat is cooked through. Personally, I like my quail to have a crisp outer skin but still be a little pink on the inside. But don't be afraid to deep-fry or roast quail until they're well done and crisp - they'll still be great.
In Australia, quail are commercially farmed at specialist poultry farms, so they tend to be very tender, but it still pays to buy from a trusted butcher or poultry specialist and to cook the birds within a couple of days. Jerome Hoban from Gamekeepers, which supplies game meats to restaurants in Victoria, told me what he looks for in quail: "They should be firm and plump, with shiny pink skin, and without any torn skin, bruising or stray feathers. Quail need to be really fresh, because they deteriorate very quickly." That said, frozen quail, while not ideal, can be used to make a ragù or pasta filling. I wouldn't buy them, though, with a plan to roast or grill them.
I take the six quail home and cook them with red wine and tomato, and serve them over wet polenta with shavings of parmesan. It's exactly the sort of thing I feel like eating right now. Enjoy.