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There are a series of things cooks, especially men, get wrong. These become particularly apparent around a barbecue. The first is to do with marinades. There is an impulse – again, especially male – to make marinades more complicated than they need to be. It’s a showoff relationship to the spice rack, and it should be avoided.
Sometimes it’s nice to have a simple marinade that’s more direct in its flavour. The main purpose of this marinade is to help the quail caramelise on the barbecue and to bring some seasoning to the bird. Because the joint is so small, the sugar in the soy sauce helps to get a blistered glaze without overcooking.
If the marinade contains a seasoning such as soy sauce, it can partially cure the meat if left too long and this can result in a dry finish. This recipe could marinade overnight but not much longer.
The second error comes with the fire itself. For a dainty little bird such as a quail, a raging flame will serve only to incinerate it. Instead of subtle blisters, you’ll have smoking cinders. I would usually have a bucket of charcoal, which I would light and let burn down for half an hour, until there are no flames apparent and all that is left is a bed of hot coals. For a large steak, or lots of meat, a good-sized fire has a place – but only there.
The urge to tinker should also be arrested. Don’t turn the meat too much. For the quail, you want to cook it skin down first – and it needs time to seal the meat so it does not stick. Once it caramelises on one side, turn it and finish cooking on the flesh side for a moment. One of the reasons I like using skewers in this recipe – either long steel ones or bamboo soaked in water – is because you can turn the bird without tongs and you lessen the chance of breaking the skin.
The final mistake made at barbecues is failing to consider what might be served with the meat. Unless you really feel the need to clear out the fridge at random, it is worth putting some thought into a harmonious match for the flavours of the meat.
The green mango salad that goes with this quail recipe is one of the first Asian salads that piqued my interest. The first time I ate a Thai salad, and tasted the sweet and the sour and the salty, I knew I had a new go-to for summer. The unripe mango brings texture, a stringent flavour that adds to the salad, and holds the sweet and salty flavours well. It’s simple in essence, but with a complexity that can stand up against other proteins. It sits comfortably alongside grilled prawns, a pork chop or, in this instance, a grilled quail.
– 6 quails, split in half, rib cage and wing tips removed (your friendly butcher can do this for you)
– ¼ cup sweet soy sauce (kecap manis)
Brush the quails with half of the sweet soy sauce and leave on a tray in the fridge for one hour to marinate and dry the skin a little.
While the quails are marinating, prepare the green mango salad (recipe below) and set aside.
When you’re ready to eat, preheat your grill, barbecue or heavy-based frying pan (with a touch of oil) and cook the quails, basting them on both sides with the remaining soy sauce as they cook, until the skin is caramelised and the meat is just cooked. Season with salt and serve with green mango salad.
Green mango salad
– 1 green mango, peeled and julienned
– ½ Lebanese cucumber, julienned
– ½ shallot, finely sliced
– 1 tbsp coriander leaves
– ¼ garlic clove
– 3 kaffir lime leaves, finely shredded
– pinch chilli powder or ½ fresh chilli, chopped
– 1 tsp fish sauce
– 1 tsp sugar
– 2 tsp lime juice
Place the green mango and cucumber in a bowl with the shallot, and coriander leaves.
Using a mortar and pestle, smash the garlic to a paste and add the remaining ingredients to make a dressing. Pour the dressing onto the salad and mix well.
2013 Domäne Wachau “Terrassen” Grüner Veltliner, Wachau, Austria ($23) – Leanne Altmann, sommelier, Supernormal
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 28, 2015 as "Licence to grill". Subscribe here.