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Quail on Sunday

March 7, 2011

Our Sunder dinners began by accident about nine weeks ago. It was cold, the holidays were done, we were shut in, cooped up, tired of each spending all afternoon cooking for one. And so, we teamed up for roast beef and Yorkshire puddings and an excellent chocolate dessert. Perhaps there was also a bit  too much wine for a Sunday night, that first Sunday night, and so in addition to dinner and good conversation, there was also a lesson learned, which seems like a good foot upon which to step from one week to the next. Knowing something you didn’t know when the week began.

A. owns the Yorkshire pudding recipe, and I own the pan, and now that pan lives at A.’s house so that it’s always on hand. I don’t bake or eat muffins more than a couple times per year, and it just makes good sense to sacrifice a good sturdy piece of cookware to regular scorching to attain the perfect pudding, rather than storing it shiny and new in my cupboard, waiting for the one rainy Saturday when I wake up and just can’t get on with the day until I’ve enjoyed a gooey banana-walnut-chocolate chip confection fresh from the oven.

Each Sunday, as we polish off the last bites of that week’s supper, conversation turns to what we ought to make next time. Another cut of beef? Lamb this time? A whole fish? No, that’d stink up the entire place and linger for days and probably get into our clothes. Such are the perils of combining seafood and one-room apartments. Fish can wait till summertime and balcony season. Perhaps a freaky game bird, something with purple-grey flesh and a curious culinary temperament that we need to learn to tame in order to make the beast taste delicious. You can’t just truss a pheasant and park it in the oven awhile the way you can with lazy chicken.

Somehow, we settled on quail, and once we’d picked our bird, I set about talking it up. Full of tiny bones. Challenging to truss and roast without overdoing it and drying the poor suckers out. Nice paired with root vegetables and mild herbs, and fun to eat since the only way that works is picking that quail up and tearing it apart with your hands. I think it was this corporeality that made up our minds. Yes, there would be quail on Sunday.

And, a bodily dinner it was. We considered cooking them Sing a Song of Sixpence style…eight little birds baked in a pie. But, we grew concerned about all the ways that dish might go wrong. Eight little fowl like birdcages bobbing in a roasting pot, their chest cavities filling with the stew while they braised then pouring sauce onto our plates like skeletal buckets…

…scooping around inside a great big pie, searching for bobbing quails and turning the dish to a sloppy mess when their bodies elude the serving spoon…and, spatchcocking seemed like an option for a little while, till we started joking about carcass lasagna, layers of bird bones and wings and breastbones and the tiny joints separating from the rest of the bird as the meat grows tender, and a dish with so much potential ultimately reduced to a great big dangerous choking hazard.

We settled on swaddling each quail in puff pastry alongside sprigs of sage, sliced carrot braised in thyme and chablis, fingerling potatoes sauteed in shortrib jus left over from our third Sunday dinner and stowed in the freezer till last night. Some of the parcels came together quite tastefully; others, not so much.

After all, there are few things as tiresome as food that takes itself too seriously. Or, people who take food too seriously, like those assholes eating endangered ortolan then writing best-selling “foodie” books about it. When it comes to a laboriously prepared Sunday supper, it is important to take the time to fuck around:

And when the pie was opened, the birds did not begin to sing, nor would it have been a particularly dainty dish to set before a king.

But, our quails were incredibly delicious, and rather intense to eat. We tried to neatly slice the pastry and take polite mouthfuls of veg, then set our cutlery on the table and properly dug in.

This time, we didn’t talk about what we’ll cook next week until the meal was done and we had retired to the sofa and armchair with glasses of wine and wedges of chocolate and quilts over our knees since the temperature was dropping again and even a sturdy dinner wasn’t enough to ward off twenty below.

Next weekend is the one nearest to A.’s birthday. We’ve been friends for twenty-two years, ever since we arrived at the same time as new kids in grade 11 at a small-town school. That’s a lot of birthdays, and we’ve spent a handful of them together, at concerts, at bars, at parties and at home in small groups. But, I don’t think we’ve ever had a birthday dinner together, not yet. And so, next Sunday is mussels with pears and wheat beer and herbs and plenty of butter, steamed in a massive pot from which we’ll eat them, too. Bread to tear apart with our hands and spill crumbs all over our laps and the floor. Cheese and cured meat and pickles my sister put up last summer.

And, despite the lesson learned on the first Sunday about too much wine, I suspect next weekend, we might forget and need to learn again.

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