Hey Grandpa…What’s For Supper?

Blackened Quail with Watermelon Molasses and Cornbread Stuffing

I get inspiration for my cooking from the most interesting places, but I never thought an airplane would be one of them. While flying down to St. Lucia recently, one of the programs Delta Airlines offered on their in-flight entertainment system was a Master Class featuring Chef Mashama Bailey. Chef Bailey is well known for traditional southern cuisine, which she features in her Atlanta-based restaurant The Grey. The recipe that caught my attention was her blackened quail with watermelon molasses and cornbread stuffing. Watermelon molasses…I had to try that.

As soon as I got home, I set about working on my approach to Chef Bailey’s dish. I must confess that although I was born south of the Mason-Dixon line, southern cooking is not in my palate’s wheelhouse. Oh sure, I had my share of greens and beans as a kid, but they never appealed to me. I ate them, reluctantly, because there were times when that was all my folks could afford to put on the table. It was that or go hungry, and I’ve never been a fan of going hungry. As an adult, my palate has no sense of nostalgia for much of the food of my childhood. I loved my mother’s scratch spaghetti sauce and her lasgane, but not the southern dishes she so creatively prepared for us. I didn’t even care for the fried green tomatoes she cooked up occasionally as a treat for my father. He loved them. Not me. But this dish promised to be different.

As I set about tailoring Chef Bailey’s creation to my palate, I found that quail is a protein not readily available at any of my local grocery stores, but I wouldn’t accept a substitute. If I got nothing right about this dish, I was determined to find some quail. I’ve used the online vendor D’Artagnan Foods in the past for specialty meat and game and turned to them to source the quail I needed for this dish. They offer several varieties of quail and I went with the traditional European quail.  I placed my order for four unfrozen European quail on a Thursday, and they were delivered the next day in a well-insulated container filled with icepacks.

I’m not sure what I was expecting as far as the size of quail. I suppose something along the lines of a Cornish game hen. I ordered four thinking I would cook two and toss the other two into the freezer…I never get a new dish right the first time. Often it takes four or five tries before I’m satisfied. But quail are small birds. To give you an idea how small, the picture in this post is of two quail…on an appetizer plate. That’s small. Where a Cornish hen weighs about a pound and a quarter, the average European quail tips the scale at half that. Each bird yielded about two to three ounces of meat, so I ended up cooking all four and thanked my stars I wasn’t planning to serve this at a dinner party.

Let me just say in spite of the fancy sounding name, this is not a complicated dish to make. Complicated in concept yes, but it doesn’t require any advanced culinary technique, nor does it require any equipment more exotic than a spice grinder and a cast iron skillet.

Chef Bailey starts with a blend of spices to create a blackening rub. Her blend is heavily influenced by Creole with its fusion of African and Caribbean spices. Her ingredient list included one spice that was new to me…powdered sumac. It has an interesting flavor profile, something akin to key lime meets cumin. Sumac berries are high in malic acid, which is smoother on the palate than the citric and ascorbic acid of lemons. It allows you to introduce subtle hints of sweet acidity to a dish, but without the lip-puckering tartness of lemon.

In addition to the sumac, Chef Bailey’s blackening blend was heavy on the cayenne, chili, and salt. REALLY heavy. Too heavy. I cut way back on those, adjusting everything else to fit my palate and tossed it all into two gallon-sized plastic bags. I rinsed and dried the quail, rubbed olive oil over them, and put two birds into each bag of the blackening spices. After shaking and rubbing them around to make sure each bird got a fair amount of the blackening spices sticking to them, I put them in the fridge overnight and let the flavors of the blackening spices infuse the birds.

I liked Chef Bailey’s idea of serving cornbread stuffing with the quail, but I didn’t care for her approach to making it Creole style. I respect the classic New Orleans trinity of onion, celery, and bell pepper in gumbo and Étouffée, but for me there is no place for green bell pepper in stuffing, so I omitted it. She also calls for adding some of her blackening spices to a shrimp stock, which she then thickens using a medium dark roux, using the finished product as both the moistener for her cornbread stuffing and as a gravy to ladle over the finished dish. I wanted a more traditional savory stuffing, so I took my New England style stuffing recipe and modified it to fit the pseudo-southern take on her dish that I was trying to create.

My mother made a decent cornbread from scratch, but for this stuffing I decided there would be no shame in using a box mix. Janet found a sweet and tasty cornbread box mix that she’s enlisted the help of our grandkids to make in the past and it turned out quite tasty. I figured if the grandkids could make a yummy cornbread from a box mix, grandpa couldn’t mess it up too badly. So I used a box mix. It took all of two minutes to mix the ingredients and another 30 minutes to bake. After letting it cool for a few hours, I crumbled it all up and let the crumbles sit out overnight to dry so they would soak up more of my stock mixture.

The next day I allocated three hours to prep and cook. I thought that was generous for such an uncomplicated dish, but I ended up using every minute of it. I knew the quail would cook up in under 30 minutes, so I saved that for last and started on the stuffing. I diced up two yellow onions and a couple of celery stalks, then sauteed them together in olive oil over medium high heat for about ten minutes. I diced up a head of garlic which I added for the last 30 seconds of cook time. Garlic is great when you cook it just enough to bring out the flavor, but it can go from fragrant to acrid in seconds if you cook it too long. About half a minute after adding the garlic I pulled the skillet from the burner and scooped the contents out onto my crumbled cornbread and gave it a good mix.

Rather than using Chef Bailey’s Creole style shrimp stock, I brought a quart of low-sodium chicken stock to a low simmer, melted in a stick of butter…yes, an entire stick of butter, unsalted of course…and then stirred in a couple of tablespoons each of rubbed sage and fresh chopped basil, and a couple of teaspoons of dried marjoram. I let that continue to simmer for another 15 minutes to infuse the herbs into stock then poured it over the cornbread.

I never know how much stock my breadcrumbs will absorb, so I always prepare more than I’ll need and add the stock incrementally. I prefer my stuffing to be a bit on the soggy side but short of soupy. In this case I used about three quarters of the stock mix. Once my stuffing had the consistency I wanted, I covered the dish with foil and popped it into a 350-degree oven for about an hour. I removed the foil cover for the final 15 minutes of cook time to evaporate off some of the moisture which left the stuffing gooey but with a nice crispy surface.

My cornbread stuffing turned out surprisingly good. It was savory and much sweeter than a classic New England stuffing. The cornbread gave it a unique flavor that teased my palate. It won’t replace my go to bread-based stuffing when I make a holiday turkey dinner, but I will make it again when I am going for a poultry dish with a touch of southern charm.

Once the stuffing was in the oven, I turned my attention to the watermelon molasses. As much as the idea of cornbread stuffing as a side dish for quail appealed to me, the aspect of Chef Bailey’s dish that really caught the imagination of my palate was watermelon molasses.

Making molasses from watermelon is easy, but it is time consuming. All you do is scoop out the contents of half a watermelon, minus the seeds, and puree it up in a blender. Once you have a pitcher full of watermelon puree you simmer it over low heat in a saucepan until it reduces down to about half a cup. Which takes forever. You have to stir it constantly or the sugars in the juice will burn and that wouldn’t taste very good. In the end it took me over an hour of steady stirring until the watermelon reached the consistency of molasses.

In my mind, the watermelon would reduce down into a sweet and delicious syrup of concentrated watermelon flavor. Sadly, that’s not how it turned out. Watermelon is a member of the squash family, and as the water cooked off and the sugars concentrated, so did the squash flavor. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t the flavor profile my palate conjured up when I imagined what watermelon molasses would taste like.

With my watermelon molasses cooling and the stuffing now out of the oven, I turned my attention to the quail. I have to say I was a bit intimidated by the idea of cooking quail, but I needn’t have been. It was the easiest part of this dish to cook. I pulled the quail from the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for about half an hour as I preheated the oven to 350 degrees. While the oven was doing its thing, I took the cast iron skillet I used to sautee the celery and onions for my stuffing, poured in a drizzle of canola oil, and let the oil heat up over medium high heat. Once the oil was nice and hot I added the quail, back side down. I gave the quail about two minutes per side to brown and then popped the skillet into the oven with the quail breast side up.

Quail are so small they take almost no time to cook. And unlike chicken, quail don’t spend their short lives so densely packed into growing pens that they wallow around in their own feces. Which is to say you can get by with cooking quail to a lower internal temperature than chicken without fear of foodborne pathogens. I was going for an internal temp of about 140-145 degrees and got that after eight minutes in the oven.

After letting the quail rest for about five minutes, I put two birds on each plate, topped them with a ladle or two of the watermelon molasses and added a scoop of cornbread stuffing on the side. I like cooking a veggie with my meals, and though I don’t usually care for Brussels sprouts, somehow that seemed like the right choice for this dish. And it was. I steamed up my sprouts in the InstantPot for about six minutes, finished them with a few minutes under the broiler, and then dipped them in a bath of olive oil and balsamic vinegar before plating.

I started out intending to recreate Chef Mashama Bailey’s quail and watermelon molasses. My quail dish turned out nothing like Chef Bailey’s Creole-inspired concoction, but it was damned tasty. The meat was moist and far more flavorful than chicken with a slightly gamey edge to it. It was pink close to the bones, almost to the point of being red. If you are used to chicken where the slightest tinge of pink or red turns your stomach you might find the look of it a bit off-putting, but the texture was perfect. It was tender with just enough of a chew factor to make you want to linger over each bite as the flavors melted onto your tastebuds.

Even with my adjustments, Chef Bailey’s blackening spice blend had more heat to it than I care for. After one bite I understood the role of the watermelon molasses…it acts as a cooling agent with the concentrated sugars cutting the edge off the spicy heat.

The dish, as I created it, turned out to be a harmonious blending of north and south. The cornbread in the stuffing lent a sweet southern charm to a side that was otherwise vintage New England, and the Brussel sprouts added a nice touch of bitterness. The next time I make it, and there will be a next time, I’ll go even lighter on the cayenne in the blackening blend. And though I didn’t care for the squash notes I got from the molasses, I am still intrigued by the idea of sweet watermelon flavor in this dish. I think instead of watermelon molasses, I’ll serve it with raw watermelon chunks on the side. I’ll stick with the cornbread stuffing as I made it, and I’ll probably even include Brussels sprouts. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.

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