If a man is considered guilty
4 what goes on in his mind
Then give me the electric chair
4 all my future crimes
The inspiration for this meal came in two halves. First, over the years in cookbooks, on cooking shows, magazines, you name it, people have spoke in hushed whispers about the allure of the truffle. I consider myself an omnivore, a person who wants to have about every culinary experience that I can realistically accomplish. So truffles have been at the forefront of my mind for a long time. For us mere humans who still require a 40+ hour a week job to scrape out a mortgage payment and all that, truffles present a unique problem. They are extremely expensive. Not just a little but extremely. I’m normally not one to balk at a price tag when it comes to using the right ingredient for the right dish but here is where I draw the line. According to Wikipedia’s truffle page, the largest amount ever paid for a white truffle was $330,000 for a 1.5 kilogram specimen. That’s more than my house! So, I have struck the balance of economy and desire for exploration, settling for an experience with white truffle oil. Considerably more affordable, I believe I paid around $27 for a small vial of the pungently delicious stuff. A word of caution however, apparently there are a great amount of oils marketed in the US that don’t even contain truffles, only a synthesized chemical that is found in truffles that approximates the flavor. Luckily, the bottle I obtained was an Italian import and was indeed made with real truffles.
Secondly, during my shopping for last week’s meal, I came across quail in the frozen section of my limited grocery store. This intrigued me, I like to stretch a little and make the occasional dish that you wouldn’t normally find on the average table. It’s not the most exotic ingredient but definitely gave a bit of impetus to the planning and execution of this week’s meal.
One of my favorite chef/authors is Nigella Lawson. In addition to being stunning, almost as attractive as my wife but nowhere near that league I will have you know, she writes in an informal tone that makes me feel as if I am sitting around the kitchen chatting. It’s comforting and more in line with how I view food. It should be a pleasant experience, friendly, inviting. Not a strict set of rules and formulas (although those have their place). Focus on the end result, the pleasure brought about by the planning, cooking and eating. I try not to think of the cleaning up after, that is not part of the pleasurable experience.
Nigella Lawson’s book, How to Eat is a staple part of my bookshelf, one that definitely had to make the trip over here with me. so, with my two key ingredients in mind, I turned to Nigella for inspiration and was not let down.
I guess it goes without saying that the recipes for today’s feast can be found in the aforementioned tome. Aside from modifying the quantities of some ingredients, I followed them fairly faithfully. I decided upon three dishes, Marinated, Flattened Quail, Mushroom Ragout and a simple pasta with a parmesan cream sauce finished with truffle oil.
The quail: you would think that the main dish would be the most time consuming but honestly, this is one of the easiest dishes I have made. Make sure you include enough lead time for the marinating, six hours minimum but twelve or more optimally. Start by spatchcocking the quail, cutting off the wing tips and removing the backbones. I pushed them down on the cutting board afterwards to flatten and they made a very satisfying sound of bones crunching. Pat them dry and season well with salt and pepper, both sides. Mix a marinade of a tablespoon of olive oil, a bit of fresh rosemary, finely minced, 2 crumbled bay leaves and in my case, 4 cloves of garlic (the original called for a single clove). Rub the mixture on the quail and refrigerate for the 6 – 12 hours mentioned earlier. Take this time to play some video games, watch some tv, recover from the night before, what have you. You are off the hook until about 45 minutes before dinnertime. Fast forward in time to about 15 minutes before dinner. Using a heavy pan or cast iron skillet, cook the quail for about 5 minutes, skin side down, until they color and juices well up on the top side. Turn over and sear the bone side for a minute or so. Remove to a holding area, keeping them warm. Deglaze the with 2 tbsp of red wine and 1/2 cup of stock (beef, chicken, your choice, I used the leftover vegetable stock from the mushroom ragout), ensuring to scrape all the fond from the pan. Reduce down to a thick sauce and gently pour a bit on each quail to serve.
The mushroom ragout: this is meant to be a stew-like consistency but I wanted something a little thicker so I could plate it alongside the quail and pasta. So, I lowered the liquid quantities called for and was maybe a little generous with the flour during the thickening stage. The only thing that annoyed me about the recipe is the call to use two pans, given my limited stovetop space, it was problematic but I managed it somehow. It was well worth it as the flavors developed independently in the two pans and mixed into a great final medley. Excellent result in my opinion. Basically what you need to do is to cook down 1 minced yellow onion, 1 thinly sliced red onion, 2 thinly sliced stalks of celery and 6 cloves of garlic in an even mixture of butter and olive oil, 1 tbsp of each. I’m not going to bore you with the interaction of the olive oil changing the smoke point of the butter and giving you the flavor advantage and cooking flexibility. You are pretty smart, you already knew that, I’m sure. Salt and pepper the mixture and when the onions start to brown, add 1/2 cup of red wine and 1/4 cup of marsala cooking wine along with a bay leaf and a bit of fresh thyme. Reduce this over medium-low heat until the wine cooks away.
Meanwhile, in another pan, cook down a large amount of mixed mushrooms, i used a mixture of white mushrooms and morells, in a similar mixture of butter and olive oil. add a sprinkle of salt and a nice dose of cayenne. you can leave these to reduce down until the moisture dries up and the mushrooms color a bit. then add a bit of red wine and marsala to these as well. reduce until the wine is incorporated. add the onion mixture into the pan with the mushrooms and deglaze the onion cooking pan with a splash of red wine. add a bit of stock and a tablespoon of flour to thicken. pour the sauce over the mushroom-onion mixture and cook for a bit until you reach your desired consistency. as i said earlier, i wanted mine to be plate-able so i used less liquid and reduced more than you would if you were serving it over polenta or rice.
The Pasta: easy-peasy. bring a large amount of salted water to a boil and cook a cup or two of spiral pasta until al dente. turn off the heat, drain the pasta and return it to the pot. drop in a large knob of butter, about a 1/4 cup of heavy cream and a light amount of grated parm. you don’t want to add too much cheese, however tempting, as it will get a bit gooey on you if you overindulge and miss the point. plate the pasta and pour a light trickle of white truffle oil over it to finish. serve immediately or sooner.
what can i say, this meal turned out fabulous. i am amazed at the flavor of the truffle oil, it was very eye opening. the mushroom dish had a great little kick from the cayenne and had a very nice blend of flavors. the quail were succulent and juicy, a bit of a pain to eat because of the meat to bone ratio but very satisfying in a primal carnivore sort of way. i will definitely make them again. all in all, a quite pleasant meal.