Native Americans and the early colonists depended in part on game birds for survival, but ever since the time of Jefferson, these delicious fowl have been a part of special feasts. In 1869 riders of the Central Pacific Railroad could ante up an extra fare to dine on quail and pheasant en casserole in the railway’s Silver Hotel cars, where, according to James Trager’s book The Food Chronology, the breakfast was served with Krug Champagne. Today game birds are more commonplace, but they are never common. Their ability to create a sense of nostalgia and luxury endures. And their adaptability to a countless number of preparations inspires creative chefs and fuels their ever-increasing popularity.
Lily Hodge, public-relations director for Newark, New Jersey–based D’Artagnan, Inc., a purveyor of gourmet meats, game, game birds and other specialty products, explains the expansion of game-bird sales. “When D’Artagnan began in 1985, we were the only game in town. Each year since then, we have seen the niche market for game birds grow,” Hodge says. “Quail, squab, pheasant and guinea hen—although it’s technically not a game bird—are the most popular game birds. Wild Scottish grouse, red-legged partridge, wood pigeon, and ring-necked pheasant probably are the most exotic and unlike the other birds are seasonal, not available year-round,” she adds.
Steven Odom, owner of Manchester Farms, a quail producer in Dalzell, South Carolina, and Mary Jo Bergs, sales manager for MacFarlane Pheasants, Inc., in Janesville, Wisconsin, agree that the popularity of game birds, especially quail and pheasant, has increased over the years. Odom especially is seeing an increase in interest among casual restaurants for his value-added products, such as bacon-wrapped quail breast and marinated quail. His semiboneless whole quail is popular across the board. “I think chefs and their customers are looking for an alternative to chicken. Pheasant, which has a richer poultry taste, provides that,” Bergs says. “Our pheasant also is growing in popularity because it’s raised in a natural manner and is third-party certified as natural,” she asserts.
Part of game birds' popularity may come from the relatively few challenges involved in storing and preparing them. When it comes to handling and storage, “game birds should be treated like any other poultry that comes into the kitchen,” Bergs notes. The only major risk is their becoming dried out during cooking. Bergs sells pheasant fresh and frozen, and both sell well, but she admits, “The fresh birds retain moisture better. Freezing lets more moisture escape.” Odom echoes the observation: “Chefs probably don’t want to hear this, but they tend to overcook quail, and when they do that it dries out.” To avoid this Odom recommends "our marinated birds which retail moisture well. Since the marinade is very mild in flavor, it doesn’t prevent chefs from adding their own seasoning.”
Executive Chef Jeff Knight of the Craftwood Inn in Manitou Springs, Colorado, has his own technique to avoid dry birds. He bards guinea hen, pheasant, and other game birds with bacon for roasting, or “we brine them in white wine, thyme, and garlic, and store them in canola oil until ready to cook. That helps keep the moisture in,” he explains.
Pheasant is just one of the birds served by Ted Fondulas, executive chef and owner of Hemingway’s in Killington, Vermont. “[It’s] pheasant and other birds that can set a restaurant apart,” he reveals. When it comes to pheasant, which he buys from Cavendish Game Birds in Vermont, he says, “You can buy baby pheasant, which are the smallest; female pheasant; or male pheasant, which are the largest. The size determines the preparation.” He pan cooks smaller pheasants and serves them with his Vermont Cheddar polenta and seasonal mushrooms. Or in the fall he’ll serve the birds with butternut-squash custard seasoned with sage and garnished with leeks.
Fondulas often uses quail on the menu. He serves wood-roasted quail on a bed of polenta with white beans and truffles. He also uses quail to create a mock Reuben sandwich ($15). For the recipe, he lightly smokes, sears, and roasts mostly boneless quail; places it atop housemade rye bread; and adds a red and white cabbage slaw, Gruyère cheese, and a Russian-like dressing of diced fresh tomato tossed with honey and balsamic vinegar. “Quail is a lot more affordable than people think,” Odom asserts. A one-ounce leg portion is 60 to 65 cents. Boneless breast is 85 to 90 cents an ounce. Fondulas worries, though, that quail has become too common to be really special, which is why he shakes it up by using other birds. He once served Moulard duck instead of turkey for Thanksgiving. “We made a strudel of leg-meat confit, marinated the breast, and pan seared it to medium rare.”
A Game of Squabble
Game birds also play a regular role on the tasting and prix fixe menus at Lake Placid Lodge, Lake Placid, New York. Executive Chef Kevin McCarthy often menus quail and pheasant, but he especially likes squab. “It has very tender red meat, similar to duck, and is extremely popular in Asian cooking,” he explains. To give his squab an Asian spin, McCarthy removes the skin and brushes the breast with crème fraîche mixed with a five-spice blend. Then he cooks it at low heat under the Salamander until medium doneness. He also sometimes crusts squab with potato shreds made with a Japanese spinner, sears them off, and deep fries them to rare or medium. He employs a similar technique using brioche bread crumbs and boned quail. Another of his preparations involves boning the squab and making a forcemeat of the legs. He combines it with seasonal mushrooms to make a mousse, which is piped under the squab breast before it is cooked.
Unlike Fondulas and McCarthy, Knight doesn’t choose favorites. “When we opened in 1985, we were the first game restaurant in our area,” he explains, and his menu features wild boar, elk, buffalo, and other game meats. “Game birds are a natural fit with what we do.” His menu is 60 percent game, and nearly all comes from Game Sales International in Loveland, Colorado. He sometimes purchases guinea hen, squab, and partridge to list on the menu as specials. A recent menu at the inn featured sauteed loin of ostrich both as an appetizer alone and as part of an appetizer platter that included pistachio pesto ravioli, Napoleon of buffalo, and wild-game quesadilla. As main courses Knight has offered a game-bird trio of macadamia-crusted ostrich in lingonberry chutney, grilled ponzu-marinated quail with sesame glaze, and breast of duckling with cinnamon-cranberry chutney.
The Nest Egg
Although prices have been fairly consistent over the years, Knight says he is beginning to see an overall increase in price. Still, game birds are neither bargains nor budget breakers. Knight estimates that the birds come in only a bit above his 30 to 31 percent food cost. He can menu partridge as an entree in the low $20s, and his appetizer selection of birds is priced in the low $30s. On average he might pay $26 for a whole pheasant, but the bird yields two main-course servings priced at $36 each. Most purveyors of other game birds are reluctant to predict or quote prices, although their Web sites do list them. Typically, the more exotic birds cost more. Chefs can derive consolation from the fact that the more-unique birds also command higher menu prices.
Featuring exclusive breeds of game birds isn’t the only way to plump their appeal. The poultry can be paired with many wines. A pheasant-Champagne combination draws crowds at Pops for Champagne, a Chicago bar and jazz club. Executive Chef Andrew Brochu created the special $70 three-course menu for the restaurant’s Open House Mondays. The second course—pheasant breast with rutabaga puree, peaches, and sage—is served with a Laurent-Perrier Brut L-P. McCarthy particularly likes game birds with an Oregon or French Pinot Noir. “Pinot isn’t heavy and doesn’t coat your tongue. [It] has those earthy, jammy flavors that go well with the game birds,” he says. Knight of Craftwood recommends a Pinot Nero from Italy. Rosenblum Zinfandel Appellation Series pairs well with duck breast, while Pierre Sparr Gewürztraminer complements pheasant.
And good pairings don’t stop there. Manchester Farms’ Odom recommends pairing game birds with more familiar menu items. “We encourage chefs to combine quail with beef, seafood, even the more-familiar duck. In fact, we do cooperative advertising with Maple Leaf Farms duckling.” Knight agrees that it is a good marketing technique. He combines game birds, “maybe a partridge or pheasant breast with seafood,” as a way to “make it easier for people to cross over into wild game.”
Pigeon with Parsnip-Vanilla Puree
By Kevin McCarthy, executive chef, Lake Placid Lodge, Lake Placid, New York
Yield: 4 servings
Olive oil 2 oz
Pigeon breasts 8
Butter 2 oz
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In olive oil over high heat sear the breasts skin side down until the skin is crisp and dark brown. Turn the breasts over, remove the pan from the heat, and set aside.
2. While the breasts are finishing, warm up the remaining liquid from the puree, and finish with butter, salt, and pepper.
Parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped 1 lb
Vanilla bean, split 1
Cinnamon stick 1
Butter 4 oz
Rice vinegar 1 Tbsp
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Combine all ingredients and simmer for 45 minutes or until the parsnips can be pierced by a spoon.
2. Drain the parsnips and reserve the liquid and vanilla bean.
3. Puree the parsnips in a blender with butter and season with rice vinegar, salt, and pepper. Set aside in a warm place.
McCarthy plates the dish with apple cider syrup, tart apples, and maple syrup.
Hemingway’s Wood-Roasted Quail with White Beans
By Ted Fondulas, executive chef/owner, Hemingway’s, Killington, Vermont
Yield: 2–3 servings
Quail:Quail, bone in 4–6
Salt and pepper to taste
Canola, grapeseed, or olive oil (not extra virgin) 3 Tbsp
1. In a stovetop smoker over low-medium flame, add maple wood (preferably) and smoke quail according to instructions for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove quail and season with salt and pepper.
2. Place quail in skillet with hot oil, and sear for about 1 minute on each side. Place in a preheated 400[°]F oven for about 2 minutes. After allowing quail to cool, remove breasts and legs, pulling out the thigh bone in each leg and leaving the thigh bone in.
3. To reheat quail, sear the breasts and legs in a hot pan, skin side down, for a minute or until the skin is crisp and the flesh is cooked to medium. Flip over in pan for 10 seconds, remove from pan, and plate.
White Beans:White cannellini, navy, pea, or rice beans 1 cup
Medium onion 1
Celery 2 stalks
Thyme 3 sprigs
Bay leaf 1
Water 3 cups
1. Cover beans with water, soak overnight, and strain.
2. Into a pot put carrot, onion, celery, thyme, and bay leaf. Sweat vegetables, then add beans and water.
3. Simmer until tender, 1 to 2 hours. Strain.
Fondulas serves the dish with Vermont Cheddar Polenta and a white wine and truffle sauce.