This dish illustrates two of the things I like best about Vietnamese cuisine: the deep, soul-satisfying flavor combination of caramelized sugar and pungent fish sauce, and the use of watercress, which I think Vietnamese cooks use to even better advantage than the French. Here, the sharp bitter-peppery taste of a simply dressed watercress salad is the perfect balance to the sweet, salty, gingery marinade on the quail.
Prep time: 15 min, plus 2 hours for cooling
Cook time: 35 min
Total time: 50 min
Yield: Makes 6 servings
- 6 quail, fresh or thawed
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon mild olive or peanut oil, or to taste
- 1 large bunch watercress, largest stems trimmed
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon minced ginger
- 2 tablespoons Caramel Syrup (below)
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1⁄2 teaspoon sugar
- 1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1⁄4 teaspoon five-spice powder
- 1⁄4 cup sugar
- 1⁄3 cup water
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- At least 2 hours ahead of time, prepare the caramel syrup: Put the sugar in a dry, heavy-bottomed saucepan (2 quarts or larger). Place over medium heat and turn the exhaust fan to its maximum setting. When the sugar begins to melt around the edges, swirl (do not stir) the pan so the sugar melts evenly. Cook until the caramel darkens to a deep mahogany shade, then remove from the heat. Carefully pour in the water and fish sauce. The caramel will very likely seize into a solid mass; don’t worry. Return the pan to the heat and bring the mixture back to a boil, swirling the pan, until the caramel is completely dissolved and the syrup is the color of strong coffee. Let cool, then transfer to a small jar and cover tightly. Store at room temperature.
- Combine the marinade ingredients in a medium bowl. Split the quail, removing the backbones, breastbones, and ribs (see Technique Note). Add to the marinade bowl, turn to coat evenly, and marinate 30 minutes to several hours.
- Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Arrange the quail skin side up in a single layer in a shallow baking pan (or a large skillet with an ovenproof handle). Pour the marinade over the quail and roast 25 minutes. While the quail roast, combine the lemon juice, salt, and pepper in a bowl and whisk to dissolve the salt, then whisk in the olive oil. Taste on a sprig of watercress and adjust the flavors to taste. Toss the watercress in this dressing and arrange on a platter, stems inward.
- Remove the quail from the pan and set aside. Bring the pan juices to a boil on top of the stove and reduce to a syrupy glaze. Remove from the heat, return the quail to the pan, and turn to coat them with the glaze. Serve on the bed of watercress.
The watercress gives a good dose of bitterness here, so a not-too-hoppy amber or brown ale is in order.
Partially boning the quail is no more difficult than boning other poultry. All the same muscles and bones are there; they are just a lot smaller. The following procedure takes longer to describe than to perform. Still, if you have never done this with any kind of bird, you might want to practice on a chicken first:
- Poultry shears make quick work of splitting the birds and removing the backbones; lacking these, put each bird on its back, insert a chef’s knife in the cavity, and cut down against the board first on one side of the backbone and then on the other.
- Spread the bird out and lean on it with the heel of your hand to crack the ribs from the breastbone.
- Turn it skin side down, locate the rib cage and pelvic bones, and slide a boning knife or thin paring knife under the bones to separate them from the meat. When you get to the hip and shoulder joints, pop the thigh and wing bones out of the joints, and all the central bones should come away easily.
- Repeat on the other side, then cut as close as you can to one side of the breastbone to cut the bird in half. Cut away the breastbone and you are left with two half birds held together mainly by the skin, with only the leg and wing bones remaining.
"The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook"
From "The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook," Copyright © 2002 by Jay Harlow. Used by arrangement with Jay Harlow.
Photo above: FotoosVanRobin/Flickr