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As small birds with big flavor, quail are gaining favor with diners, chefs, home cooks

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com
At Texas Quail Farms, hatchery supervisor Francisco Diaz, left, worker Israel Estrada, center, and live produce manager Keith Jessen count hatchlings.

When Todd Smith was a student at Texas A&M University in the 1990s, he had the good fortune of studying under Fred Thornberry, a renowned poultry science specialist who is credited with developing a line of meat birds to meet the growing demand for gourmet quail.

Bobwhite quail, an indigenous, frequently hunted species whose population has been declining throughout the South in recent years, wasn't as suitable for commercial farming for meat production, so Thornberry started working with a Japanese quail called coturnix that he crossbred to make more uniform and larger in size.

"He always encouraged me," says Smith. "He thought the market was there and that the market wasn't being filled."

When Smith, an Austin native, graduated and wanted to go into business for himself, he bought a flock of Texas A&M Gourmet Quail and created Texas Quail Farms just south of Lockhart. In less than 10 years, the company has become the largest state-inspected quail producer in Texas, selling quail to restaurants and grocery stores across the country.

Demand for quail at Green Pastures restaurant in South Austin has been strong ever since Charles Bloemsma took over the kitchen more than a decade ago. "For us, it's a mainstream item," Bloemsma says. "Quail is as popular, maybe even more popular, than duck."

A decade ago, there were only so many fine dining restaurants that served quail, but now even casual restaurants such as Jack Allen's Kitchen in Oak Hill can serve a decent number of quail each night. "One thing that benefits us is that in the kitchen, chef turnover is kind of high," Smith says. "It isn't great for the restaurant, but it's great for us. They move on to other restaurants and tell their new chefs about us," and we pick up a new customer.

The mostly dark meat coturnix aren't gamey in flavor, and because they are harvested when they are seven or eight weeks old, they are still tender. Smith also sells the quail eggs to chefs like Bloemsma, who likes to use the diminutive egg as an amuse bouche. (The chef's 12-year-old daughter, however, likes to boil them and use them in her bento box creations.)

Quail producers long ago figured out that no one wants to have to pick around all those little bones, so the semi-boneless carcass is now an industry standard. Texas Quail Farms also offers breast, legs and, capitalizing on another culinary trend, even some bacon-wrapped cuts. Quail has been on the menu at Green Pastures "for the longest time," but it's also a product Bloemsma likes to serve at charity events, where chefs are eager to stand out from one another. "It's nice having something that is local, fresh and I know the person who raises it," Bloemsma says.

Down in Lockhart, Smith tries to keep things as hands-on and waste-free as possible. "We do things the old-fashioned way," Smith says. They hatch more than 20,000 birds every week, which means they are harvesting almost as many every Monday. Demand tends to increase during the winter months, especially around the holidays, but they use the slower summer months to stock up for the fall.

In the hatching facility last week, three workers counted the birds by hand shortly after they'd pecked their way out of small, speckled eggs, and in another building, about a dozen women sitting at two long, stainless steel tables used scissors and small blades to break down the birds by hand. (Every 15 minutes, they change tasks to avoid repetitive stress injuries, and a handful of them have been with the company since it started.)

The bones and entrails are sold to a co-op of pet owners in Austin who prefer to give their dogs raw meat instead of traditional dog food, and if chefs like Bloemsma ask for offal, such as the hearts, for something like sausage, they can accommodate. All the other parts and quail litter are composted.

Because more home cooks are trying their hand at some of the quail dishes they've tried in restaurants, sales of fresh and frozen quail at retail outlets such as Whole Foods Market and Central Market are increasing. Dai Due chef Jesse Griffiths, who created the recipes that appear on Texas Quail Farm's website (texquail.com), likes to stuff the quail with a cornbread stuffing, which is a good single-serving alternative to the traditionally stuffed turkey around the holidays.

Bloemsma's biggest tip for home cooks is to leave the skin on and let it get crispy, especially if cooking on the grill. On the flip side, don't cook the skin-less meat too hot, too fast, he says. Overcooking quail, as with any meat, doesn't do the bird any favors, so leave just a little bit of pink. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends cooking game birds to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.)

"When we started, there was some demand out there, but... acceptance has grown tremendously," Smith says. "The South has always been a pretty good place for quail because quail hunting, especially in Texas, has always been popular. Everyone knows what quail is, and they know that it's pretty tasty."

Contact Addie Broyles at 912-2054. Twitter: @broylesa

Grilled quail

Because most of the commercially sold quail found in grocery stores and online is mostly deboned and cut so that it will lay flat, grilling is an ideal way to cook the meat. The high, dry heat will crisp up the skin, which is less fatty than chicken skin, and a simple olive oil marinade will keep the meat moist.

4 semi-boneless quail, thawed

Salt and pepper

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 tsp. fresh or dried thyme

1 tsp. honey

Season the quail with salt and pepper, then marinate in the olive oil, garlic, thyme and honey for at least one hour and up to one day, refrigerated.

Start a very hot fire in a charcoal grill or turn a gas grill to high heat. Brush the grill grates with a little oil, then place the quail, breast side down, on the grill for about 3-4 minutes without moving them. Turn the quail 90 degrees and grill for another 2 minutes. Flip the quail and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes. Remove the birds from the grill and let rest in a warm spot for 10 minutes, then serve.

— Jesse Griffiths, Dai Due