Coveys of Coturnix coturnix, enemies of the English setter, the grasslands fowl of upland game bird culture, gather in bushy draws in the early November crisp of the Great Plains hunter’s season. The randily domesticated Colinus virginianus is plump and round, ripe for the plucking, and the Callipepla gambelii in its poultrian Sicilian shade is tragically mistaken for some double-ounced partridge.
Quasi-poetic genus and regional jargon aside, the quail is one of the world’s favorite game birds, dwelling in flat, open country in land stretches everywhere. In France, the bird is drawn and usually barded with bacon to combat the common complaint of being too bony. Most quail recipes brown the birds in butter when the skin stays on, but skinned quail are often marinated in butter or oil to keep its meat moist.
Tim Patridge, former food and beverage director for the 1996 Olympic Games, has worn many hats in and around the Atlanta food circuit. He has been a chef at that paragon of soul food cookery, Sylvia’s, a board member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an executive chef at Callaway Gardens, and the Food Service Director at Morris Brown College. Underneath his impressive list of titles though is a bedrock of inspiration born from the homely environs of his childhood kitchen, where his mother transformed his father’s hunting gains into dishes of idyllic savor. Few chefs have access to such ideal conditions for freshly-prepared, no-travel meat, and Patridge’s recipe brings our imaginations right to Ms. Patridge’s table.
Though quail is popular in Europe (a Far East species is raised on some French farms), the quail has, in its fly-over path above the Great Plains states, been depended upon for feature on tables amid that ocean of grass that is the landscape of the upper Midwest. A typical recipe representing the region’s general treatment of captured quail from the legendary cookbook, Culinaria, will serve to contrast with Chef Patridge’s hand-me-down.
The most outstanding Southernization Patridge introduces to the quail recipe canon is his dredging the quail in flour after seasoning it with cayenne, salt, and pepper. Quail is never country-fried (until now), and Patridge browns it to the quaility of Southern fried chicken in a cast-iron skillet in lard. The Great Plains recipe simply halves the quail, seasons it, and browns it in butter. Despite the hardy character of the people of the plains, apparently they don’t share the Southern instinct for coronary inducement.
Patridge next sautes onion, bell pepper, and garlic in a lower skillet until softened. The Great Plains cook (perhaps next to some good simmering hominy) drops more butter in his skillet and sautes mushrooms, following them with beef broth and chokeberry jelly, then simmering this ensemble until it’s reduced by half. Patridge, on the other hand, stirs in coffee, chicken stock, and Worcestershire sauce, adds the quail with any accumulated juices back to the skillet, quietly braising it until the sauce is thickened and the meat is tender.
The Great Plains cook adds heavy cream to the chokeberry-mushroom broth (chokeberry being a North Dakota shrub berry related to the American plum) and thickens the sauce before adjusting the seasoning and the suggestion of lemon juice, if desired. The quail is “napped” with the sauce, whereas Patridge’s quail is served hot, a veritable Quail du Cafe per se, atop stone-ground grits, good enough or perfect for either breakfast or dinner.
Just as the chef’s name is often mistaken for the bird’s (there’s only one “r” in Patridge), the quail’s frequent misnomer “partridge” is in fact a completely different species than quail. No matter the spelling or name, preparing the bird along Patridge’s guidelines clues the cook into the world of Mrs. Patridge’s kitchen, and we can trust the veteran chef and Southern Foodways scholar to deliver a recipe authentic of idea and tradition.