Quail roasted in milk
The technique of cooking meat in milk, or milk products, is used throughout the world. From Central Asia, where meat is often marinated in scented yoghurt before being turned into curry, to the American Deep South’s chicken soaked in spiced buttermilk, coated in flour and fried, to Italy, where pork is famously immersed in milk before being roasted.
Milk is a comforting liquid whose primary function is to nourish baby mammals until they can eat solids. Therein lies one of its secrets – it’s a nutrient-packed powerhouse providing everything a newborn needs to grow exponentially in its first weeks or months of life.
One of the chemical building blocks of milk is lactic acid. It is this acid that can transform both milk itself and other foodstuffs with which it comes into contact. The natural pH of milk is a little acidic but, as it ages, the acidity increases. When proteins such as meat and poultry are soaked in milk, the acid helps tenderise the flesh. The acid in milk is far gentler than that in vinegar or citrus juice and will tenderise the meat more evenly. When used as a marinade, milk also leaves a much more interesting flavour profile.
In this quail dish, we don’t marinate the protein in milk; rather we use it as a cooking medium in the oven. Here it creates a greater depth of flavour and changes the nature of the stuffing. The dry stuffing the birds are filled with soaks up the milk during cooking and becomes a deliciously salty and tangy filling as the flavours of the blue cheese, milk and sage come together. By sitting the birds in a bath of milk the tops become crisp, with their layer of prosciutto giving a pleasing change of texture where salty crispness is a counterpoint to the salty softness of the stuffing.
To complete the flavour combinations, the roasted fig brings inherent sweetness to the dish, and by wrapping it in prosciutto, it mimics the quail, with crunch on the outside and the soft, lush interior of a fig.
Also take a minute to inspect the pan after you have made the dish. It tells you more about milk and how it works in cooking. It will not be overly attractive, but you will be able to see the curdling of the milk from the reaction of acid and heat. It will be a salty, complex residue of all the flavours in the dish. If you want to incorporate it in the finished dish, spoon it onto the plate before you start to add leaves, the bird and the fig. It is a little unsightly, but very delicious.
Quail roasted in milk
– 8 jumbo quail
– 4 slices stale ciabatta, cut into 5mm cubes
– 100g Roquefort or other strong blue cheese, crumbled
– 2 sage leaves, chopped
– 12 slices prosciutto
– about 500ml milk
– 8 figs
– olive oil, for drizzling
– 100g rocket leaves or other sharp salad greens
– flaked salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 200°C.
Bone the quail, leaving the first wing bone and drumstick bones in. (If you’re not comfortable doing this, ask your butcher to do it for you.)
Put the ciabatta cubes, Roquefort and sage in a bowl and mulch it up using your hands to combine.
Lay all the birds on the bench, skin-side down, and divide the stuffing evenly among them. Re-form the birds and then wrap each one in a slice of prosciutto. Place in a baking dish that is large enough to hold the birds snugly in a single layer. Pour enough milk into the dish to come halfway up the side of the quail.
Place in the oven and roast for 10–15 minutes or until the birds are cooked (check by squeezing the leg meat to see if it’s cooked through). The tips should have a nice crispness and colour from the prosciutto.
Once you’ve put the quail in the oven, cut the figs in half, wrap in prosciutto and place on a baking tray. Drizzle with a little olive oil and roast for about seven minutes.
For each plate, lift the quail from the dish and place on a bed of greens. Prop half a roasted fig on each side, season to taste and serve.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 25, 2020 as "Milking it".
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