Sunday, December 7, 2008

Quail Nuggets

Cooking game is a specialty art within the art of cooking. While I can't claim to have mastered it, I have become cognizant of the problems and gained an appreciation for what can be achieved...with practice.

Years ago I was served the baked dry and shot-filled product of a quail hunt and knew there had to be a better way to prepare these little birds. After much trial, I found it, and it's the only game dish I claim to cook well.

Begin with the torso (minus head and legs) of fresh shot quail, stripped of skin and feathers. (This part is done for me by the hunter, so I have only the bone-in breast when I get the meat.) Starting at the keel, run a knife under the breast muscle and free it from the bone--two sides, two breasts. You'll have a larger piece of meat and a smaller. I cook both.

After producing these boneless breasts, I wash them again individually, checking each one for shot and feathers. There is nothing more disgusting than cooked feathers. It's also unpleasant to bite down on shotgun shot. Stripping the breast meat from the bone is the only way I know to guarantee no unpleasant surprises, and this method was my first breakthrough in making a good meal out of the hunt. Now, as the oil in the pan heats, I lightly dredge the breasts in flour, salt and pepper.

Next comes the finesse part. You have to cook these little "nuggets" just long enough to cook them through thoroughly, but not long enough to let them toughen or dry out. The oil should be hot enough to sizzle when you place the meat in it. Add all the breasts at nearly the same time, turn them once when they're golden-brown, not tan-brown, but golden, bordering on dark. The second side cooks faster, because the oil (and the nugget) heat up. Remove just as soon as the second side is light golden and drain them on paper towels. They're small, so they cool quickly. I invert a plate over them to keep them warm while I assemble the rest of the meal.

Serve with mashed potatoes and gravy made from the pan drippings. (Bless you, Mom, for teaching me to make gravy.)

The same procedure can be used for pheasant, but the last time I did, the meat was slightly tougher than the quail. I think I needed to cut the meat into smaller portions, so it would cook through faster, and I could get it off the heat before it dried out. I'll know better next time...perhaps tonight, since my hunter is in western Kansas right now with both pointers, the old dog and the pup.

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