When frost begins to bloom over the countryside, or at least as soon as there’s a suggestion of chill in the air, all across the South hunters rise before dawn, bundle up, fill a thermos with coffee, load rifles and jacket pockets with bird shot, and head into the frosty air for fallow fields and fog-topped ponds, hoping for duck, wild turkey, perhaps a pheasant or two, and the native quail we call “bobwhite.” In Grassy Pond, the South Carolina farm community where my family lived until I was ten, this predawn ritual was an integral part of Thanksgiving. The hunters returned right about the time the rest of the household was rising, their baskets and bags filled with game birds. The quail were dressed on the spot, soaked briefly in brine, and fried to golden perfection. Served up with grits and onion pan gravy, they made for a sumptuous breakfast as essential to the holiday as the midday turkey and dressing.
From the dark days after the War Between the States right through the Great Depression, game hunting for many Southerners was necessity, but it’s still popular even though it is no longer so necessary. There’s just nothing to compare with the tender flesh and complex flavor of wild birds, fattened for the winter on summer’s bounty of nuts, seeds and berries.
I’ve never actually hunted. By the time I was big enough to hold a rifle without having it knock me over when it went off, my eyesight and aim were so bad I couldn’t have hit the broad side of a barn with a cannon, let alone something as small as a quail. This has not, however, stopped me from enjoying the fruits of the family hunters’ labor. And fortunately for families without a hunter (and for bad shots like me), fully dressed farm-raised quail are widely available. Those wild birds from my childhood were mostly skinned, which made keeping their delicate flesh moist and tender a bit of a challenge for us cooks. They were either quickly fried or wrapped in bacon and slowly braised until falling-from-the-bone tender. While farm-raised quail lack the deeper flavor of wild birds, they’re always plucked rather than skinned, which makes it much easier to keep them moist and tender.
Pan Fried Quail with Grits and Onion Gravy
Cooks of the past knew that a brief brining helped keep roasted and fried wild birds juicy and tender and brining farm-raised birds doesn’t hurt either.
Salt for brining
8 dressed quail
8 strips thick-cut breakfast bacon
Peanut or other vegetable oil
Whole black pepper in a mill
1 teaspoon or more crumbled dried sage, optional
1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup finely chopped onion
1½ cups beef stock or water
1 teaspoon or more Worcestershire sauce
4 cups hot cooked grits
Dissolve a small handful of salt (about a tablespoon) in a quart of water.
Rinse the quail under cold running water and add them to the brine.
Soak at least 30 minutes or for up to an hour.
Drain and season well with pepper and, if liked, sage.
Preheat the oven to the warm setting, (170-200 degrees F.).
Meanwhile, fry the bacon in a large, deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat, turning frequently, until browned and crisp.
Remove the bacon, blot it on absorbent paper, and set it aside for another use.
Add enough oil to the pan to make the fat at least 1 inch deep, but no more than halfway up the sides. Heat until it is shimmering but is not quite smoking.
Roll the quail in the flour until well-coated, shake off the excess, and slip them into the hot fat until the pan is full but not crowded.
Fry until the bottom is golden, about 7 to 8 minutes, turn, and fry until evenly golden brown and just cooked through, about 7 minutes longer, working in batches if necessary.
Lift them from the pan with tongs or a wire frying skimmer, let drain until the fat is no longer dripping from them, and blot briefly on absorbent paper.
Transfer to a wire rack set over a rimmed cookie sheet, and keep them warm in the oven while making the gravy.
Carefully pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat and add the onion to the pan. Sauté, stirring often, until deep gold, about 4 minutes.
Stir in 2 tablespoons of flour and cook, stirring constantly, until smooth and bubbly, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Slowly stir in the broth or water and cook, again stirring constantly, until lightly thickened and beginning to boil.
Reduce the heat to low, season to taste with salt, pepper, sage, and Worcestershire, and simmer 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Pour into a warmed gravy bowl.
Serve the quail at once with hot grits, passing the gravy separately.