In the summer, I always just walk outside and let the garden dictate what dinner will be. I love the constant dialogue with the plants, and the tension between my desire to efficiently dispatch them all at ideal times and the realities of their own schedules. As a result, I often try to make good use of the not-yet-ready in the form of sprouts and baby greens, combined with a few thinks at their perfect peak, and something else that’s past its prime. These days? I just open the freezer. Interesting it ain’t, but easy it assuredly is. And on nights such as last, when I’m not feeling super-inspired, a package of four semi-boneless quail can make the difference between a pasta phone-in and a real meal.
Lack of garden notwithstanding, I love winter vegetables; lately leeks, fennel, celery and a variety of roots have been bringing me much pleasure in a variety of forms from crunchy raw salads to superlative soups. This time around, inspired by the guanciale in the meat drawer, I decided to combine them all in a braise of sorts. I got the guanciale excited in a hot pan, then added the fennel, leeks, and celery to soften and color a bit, then added a big double handful of shredded kale and tossed it all together, adding garlic, sake, and a bit of water, then covering the pan and moving it to the low burner.
Up front, I had a couple sweet potatoes cut up and steaming, and the pot with the oil from frying the lamb chops on Saturday heating up. Next to the stove, I had seasoned the quail and then dredged them in some medium-coarse cornmeal. Once the oil was hot, I dropped them in one by one and cooked them to about medium. Quail should always be a little pink in the middle or they dry out and lose their wonderful succulence. I crisped up a bit more guanciale and maitake mushrooms in a separate pan and hit them with a bit of soy sauce and vinegar when they were done.
And that was it, although I did quarter the crispy quail for a nicer presentation. Spuds, greens, birds, mushrooms. If I’d been a little more motivated, some strategically deployed gravy would have been an excellent addition, but by using their steaming water to thin the sweet potatoes I had gotten them to a puddingy consistency that was well-suited to swabbing with quartered quail. To drink, a bottle of my current favorite cheap red: the 2006 Plan Pegau. For $13.50 with the case discount, it’s hard to beat this fluent synthesis of fruit and earth that the Southern Rhône does so well.