I had a minor epiphany as I was driving home from work the other day: There is a basin beneath the Nimbus Dam on the American River that is a forager’s paradise, full of wild blackberries, wild fennel, wild grapes and fig trees that had escaped from somewhere long ago. I fish there on occasion, and when I do I often hear quail woop-wooping in the brambles. Thus begat Quail Nimbus.
Holly and I were preparing for our annual Big Fat Greek Party, and I wanted to do a series of special little dishes that not everyone at the party would get; I am fond of the notion that everyone should not be allowed to eat every appetizer, thus leaving your guests slightly slighted and eager for something even more delicious than the dish they saw pass them by.
Quail Nimbus was one such morsel. Sadly I had to buy the quail, not having shot any this season (although I plan on repeating this dish with some doves lurking in my freezer). But the fig trees were leafing out nicely and the wild fennel is still sweet and lush.
Figs and wild fennel are intensely Greek ingredients, so I decided to gather some and create this meze, inspired by the cuisine of Crete. First I minced the wild fennel very fine, then mixed it with some room-temperature sweet butter from the farmer’s market to makeÂ my stuffing for the quail.
Then I decided to get a little fancy with the quail, so I partially deboned most of them. A persnickety job, but worth it — it makes the birds so much easier to eat at a party. I salted the quail and soaked them in ouzo for a day. Then I drained them, dried them and marinated the birds in olive oil for another day.
Finally, I decided to wrap them in fig leaves, which, let me tell you, is an acquired skill. I wound up wrapping them up like hostages in a sack: What I wanted was crispy grilled legs, which need moreÂ time to cook, yet delicate, almost poached breast meat. Any of you who eat quail with any regularity know they can dry out in a flash.
Mercifully, my experiment worked. Stuffed with the wild fennel butter, the quail stayed moist with the faintest blush of pink left in the center of the breast meat — yet the legs were completely caramelized and smoky from the almond wood fire. And the ouzo soak and that cinnamon-like aroma from the fig leaves permeated the meat.
Everyone seemed to like them, including Elise, who was kind enough to take the pictures at the top of this post. And those who didn’t get their share of Quail Nimbus got their own special treat: Homemade loukaniko sausages.
More on that later.