recipe

Credit: EARL CARTER

Quail with nectarine and rose petals

Annie Smithers is the owner and chef of du Fermier in Trentham, Victoria. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.

The novel and subsequent film Like Water for Chocolate immortalised the combination of quail and rose petals as a romantic dish. So with Valentine’s Day upon us, what could be a more fitting union to revisit?

Quails have been domesticated for thousands of years and feature in many cuisines throughout the world, not just in the Mexican fare featured in the BAFTA- and Golden Globe-nominated film. They have reportedly been raised for food since the pyramid-building days of Egypt and the Zhou dynasty in China. A small and easily kept bird, the quail was seen as an excellent source of protein that was favoured because it was so quick and easy to prepare and cook.

The modern diner is a bit more finicky about quail. They complain that they are too fiddly to eat and too small to satisfy an appetite. I disagree. As someone who enjoys eating with their hands, I love the sleeves-up, hands-on approach you have to take. And regarding their size, I find them a perfect little hit of protein, where the balance of vegetables and meat sits nicely together.

This recipe reinterprets the theme of rose petals and quail, but in a lighter, more salad-oriented version. The sweet coolness of the nectarine, the heat of the chilli, the slight taste of char and the pungent spices all come together in a very pretty and satisfying summer salad. Don’t forget to have a little finger bowl and cloth on the side. And then just surrender to the romance of it all.

Quail with nectarine and rose petals

Serves 8

12 quail (this is based on 1½ quail per person; if you’re greedy, go for 2 quail each)

1 tbsp rosewater

3 tsp ground cumin

3 tsp ground cinnamon

60ml fresh lemon juice

2 tbsp olive oil

flaked salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 white nectarine

1 hot chilli

1 tbsp white wine vinegar

1 tbsp fish sauce

1 tbsp lemon juice

½ tsp sugar

2 butter lettuce

12 sprigs coriander

petals from 2 unsprayed pink or red roses

Remove the backbones from your quail. This is best done by inserting a cook’s knife into the cavity of the quail and crunching down on either side of the backbone. Turn the quail over and flatten by pressing forcefully with the palm of your hand.

Combine the rosewater, cumin, cinnamon, lemon juice, one tablespoon of the oil and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add the quail and toss to coat. Marinate for a couple of hours.

The quail can be cooked in a frying pan, on a ribbed grill or on a barbecue – it’s up to you, but just make sure the pan or grill plate is hot. Cook the butterflied quail, skin-side down, for two to three minutes or until golden, then turn and cook for a further four to six minutes until cooked through. (If you have limited space, you can seal off the quail in batches on the stovetop, then finish them on a baking tray in a preheated 180°C oven for five minutes.)

Halve the nectarine, remove the stone and then cut the flesh into wedges. Remove and the seeds from the chilli and finely slice. Place the nectarine and chilli in a bowl.

Heat the vinegar, fish sauce, lemon juice and sugar together until the sugar is just melted. Pour this mixture over the nectarine and chilli.

Separate the butter lettuce into individual leaves and toss with the nectarine mixture. Add the coriander.

Arrange on plates with the quail on the salad, then scatter the rose petals on top.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2021 as "Serving up romance".

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Annie Smithers is the owner and chef of du Fermier in Trentham, Victoria. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.