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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ASPARAGUS TIPS: Delicate Quail Is Diminutive, But Delicious Dinner Poultry

The life of a Moscow Times contributor is rewarding but fraught with danger. Why, only last week, I received an angry phone call from an enraged reader, appalled that I had suggested New Zealand's green-lipped mussels as the world's best and directed me to try the smaller Belgian, French and Tasmanian (Australian) mollusks. I'm not sure that anything coming out of the turgid body of water that separates France from a decent fish supper could be healthy for anyone. His point did rest on the assumption that small is good in gastronomic terms (I think this is a result of his French heritage). As I respect both his capacity and palate for food, I dedicate this week's article to the smallest poultry I have prepared -- the family Phasianidae of the order Galliformes, better known as the quail.

The quail is a small, plump, ground-dwelling game bird. Richly flavored, it can also be tough, though the quail we buy is commercially farmed and is as tender as butter. They cook quickly (taking as little as 10 to 15 minutes) and have a delicate flavor.

Quail can be roasted, stuffed, grilled, barbecued, fried, poached or braised. Take care not to overcook them. A correctly cooked quail is pale pink on the breast. Quail goes well with rice, barley, couscous, lentils and polenta. It can be seasoned with olive oil, bay leaves, rosemary, olives, chestnuts, shallots, spinach, soy sauce, honey, ginger, star anise, fortified wines, mushrooms, bacon, pine nuts, garlic, cardamom, cumin and coriander seeds.

Allow one quail per person for a first course and two per person for a main course; they generally weigh 150 grams to 160 grams apiece.

Frozen quail should be thawed overnight on a plate lined with kitchen paper in the refrigerator, free of all plastic wrappings. Once thawed, wash them briefly, then dry well and cover with plastic film. Use thawed birds within 36 hours. Frozen quail are available from The Diplomat and Stockmann's among others.

If you are going to grill, barbecue or pan-fry, use kitchen scissors to cut both sides of the backbone along the length of the bird. Keep the backbones for a simple sauce. Open up the bird skin-side down and remove the heart and liver if present. Rinse the bird under cold water, pat dry with a towel and reserve on a plate. Wash and dry your chopping board and put the quail, skin-side up on it. Press firmly on the breastbone of the bird to flatten it. You may now season to taste and cook.

Quail can be boned by cutting off the first wing joint, then gently pushing the neck skin back from the breast and removing the wish bone, which is embedded in the breast flesh. Work around each curve of the breastbone with a small, sharp knife and ease it out of the flesh. Cut out the backbone as for grilling. Using your finger pull away the fine rib bones. Carefully work down either side of the breast shield using a small sharp knife until the breast meat falls away from the breastbone. Pull firmly up on the breastbone to remove it. The bird can now be lightly stuffed with a cooked seasoning then pulled back into shape and secured with toothpicks or needle and thread.

To prepare for roasting, remove the wishbone, season the birds with salt and pepper, then lightly crush an unpeeled clove of garlic and slip it into the cavity with half a bay leaf, a scant teaspoon of butter, sprigs of thyme and rosemary and a piece of lemon zest. Allow the flavors to permeate for a few hours then brush the birds with olive oil and place each bird on a buttered or oiled slice of bread in a baking dish. Roast at 200 degrees Celsius for 12 to 15 minutes, turning the birds halfway through cooking. To test, prick the thigh with a fine skewer. The juices should be a very light pink.

Deglaze the baking dish with red wine, add chicken stock, mushrooms, peppercorns, tomato paste and let the sauce simmer. Strain, check seasoning, add cream if desired, and serve.

Diplomat, 63 Bolshaya Gruzinskaya Ulitsa, 251-2580, Nearest metro: Belorusskaya

Kalinka-Stockmann, 2 Zatsepsky Val, 953-2602, 951-1924, Nearest metro: Paveletskaya, Open 7 days a week 9 a.m. to midnight.