Small birds pack full flavour in small packages

By / Magazine / April 5th, 2017 / 13

The night I went to cooking school, the downtown Vancouver class was sprinkled with brokers, jocks, moms, dads and a sweet young lady who, unrelated, had come right from the gym. We prepared a lavish dinner that began with grilled quail on a wild green salad, followed by lamb noisettes in a rosemary potato crust, served with a balsamic onion confit and a tian of zucchini and roasted pepper. And to end it? Caramelized pears with crème anglaise. And of course, a bill.

If you’ve never seen a naked quail, that is, a quail sans feathers, or attempted to debone one, they are very small. Stand back and watch a dozen people removing the flesh from a quail’s tiny skeleton, or more accurately the bones from the flesh, it’s like an old-fashioned science class without the frogs. Grill what’s left, and position it onto a colourful background of greens, a frail and tiny quail, despite your best efforts, may seem to have made a much better songbird than it does a starter for a dinner. But you do your best. The web, of course, offers YouTube lessons if you’d like to try one at home.

We eat a lot of birds. Mostly farm-grown chicken, but on occasion, other feathered friends that fly, or root around at ground level. Duck? It’s easy to pick up a breast at a supermarket, sizzle it in butter, pop it in a very hot oven, slice it and serve it up as a main course. Other birds are harder to come by, even if a good butcher — like my friend Chad at Heringers in Steveston, BC — will track down your quarry, and offer good thoughts on how to make it a mighty-nice meal.

And friend Gordon, who has a farm down the road from me, always has duck in the freezer. Quite legitimately in season, he is able to bring down a brace or three of mallards, teal, widgeons and pintails right from his back porch. And while Gordon has a good old dog, he is his own best retriever.

Duck, pheasant, pigeon, squab, grouse, partridges in pear trees and other small critters that flap and fly have never made it to the mainstream of food production, even if all of them offer distinctive and rich tastes that chicken and turkey simply don’t. I know it takes a whole lot of deboned quail to make a respectably-sized meal, but bring the meat together with a handful of shallots or another member of the onion family and a buttery, fortified red-wine sauce, quail sure ain’t chicken. (Even if a Cornish game hen is.)

Forgive me if I’ve told the story before on these pages about always food-enterprising Uncle Horace and how we used to “hunt” pigeons. It went like this: There was a seemingly-bottomless abandoned copper mine out from his place. Straight down into the darkness below. And its abandoned walls had been home to generations of pigeons. Our ploy to catch them? Gently lower a long rope, at the end of which were tied several noise-making cans, as Horace waited shotgun at the ready, on the lip of the shaft. On a given signal, we pulled hard on the rope and the alarmed pigeons flew upward into a hail of Horace’s gunfire. Of course some ended up back in the bottomless pit, but enough landed on the earth above to become delicious, if shot-filled dinners.

My experience with the small and wild birds that have come my way is that roasting is mostly the way to go with them. A roast, a braise or a poach in a dish with a lid. Salt, pepper and the herbs of your choice, they come out super tender. While your table presentation may be the whole bird, their size inevitably makes them finger food. And at this time of year, don’t forget an accompaniment of those late-harvest vegetables — parsnips, carrots, rutabaga, cabbage and others — that can be juxtaposed with your bird in the roasting dish or casserole.

Because we’re coming up to the holiday season, thoughts turn again to that monstrous turkey. But does it have to be? Traditions hold us strong, but why not a critter that may have actually flown? And still on the holiday topic, and while you’re considering your centre-of-plate options, who was the brilliant person who first paired cranberry sauce with that holiday bird, and figured that duck and orange might be a tasty combo? Poultry loves pairings of this kind. Trot the shelves of your high-end market, or check your pantry for your own good stuff that needs a bird to make it sing, or the other way around. It’s all about taste.

chicken kiev

Serves 6

Just chicken? Sure. But plunge your knife or fork into this and watch the butter squirt; it’s poultry perfection. I always turn to my Time-Life book to make sure I get it right.

3 chicken breasts, skinned, boned and halved
1/4 tsp pepper
2 tbsp fresh chives, finely cut
6 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into 6 finger-sized pieces and frozen hard
1/2 cup flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs
Canola oil for deep frying

Flatten the breasts to a thickness of about 1/4 inch by placing them between 2 pieces of wax paper and pounding them lightly with a kitchen mallet or rolling pin. Discard the paper and lay out the flattened breasts, boned side up.

Salt to taste and sprinkle the breasts with the pepper and chives. Place a finger of the frozen butter on each breast half. Roll up the butter in the breast meat as you would wrap a package, tucking in the ends at the beginning of the roll.

Dip the rolled breasts in flour, then in the beaten eggs, and finally roll them in the bread crumbs. Chill in the refrigerator for 3 or more hours.

Heat the oil to 365˚F in a saucepan or deep skillet; the oil should be deep enough to cover the rolled breasts.

Deep fry the breasts for 4 to 5 minutes or until golden brown. Drain them on paper towels and serve immediately. Watch for a burst of butter!

duck kronsberg

Barbara, wife of friend Gordon, who lives on a farm down the hill from me provided this recipe. It calls for 4 ducks. Maybe too many for you, but imagine them lined up in the pan for a long roast. And the sauce? The best.

4 ducks
Garlic salt
Celery salt
1 apple, quartered
1 orange, quartered
1 red onion, quartered

for the sauce:

3/4 cup Grand Marnier
1 jar orange marmalade (8 oz)
1/4 lb butter dash of cinnamon

Wash ducks, wipe dry inside and out. Sprinkle duck cavities with garlic, celery salt and pepper. Stuff cavities with quartered apple, orange and onion.

Place each duck, breast side up, on a sheet of aluminum foil. Arrange orange quarter on each side. Cover duck breasts with bacon slices.

Pour 2 tbsp of Grand Marnier over each duck. Crimp foil loosely to cover. Arrange in a baking dish. Bake at 250˚F for 6 to 8 hours.

Combine 1/4 cup Grand Marnier with remaining ingredients in saucepan. Heat until bubbly. Serve sauce with duck. Pour off and discard fat as ducks cook.


Serves 4

All summer long and all day long we heard the monotonous sound of doves in our back garden. From time to time I was tempted to find a nest and search for a squab, the growing young of these birds, and of pigeons. Meaty little birds, Food and Wine has suggested them as an alternative to turkey for Thanksgiving. And you may wish to serve them for the upcoming holiday main meal.

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
2 tbsp juniper berries, crushed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Vegetable oil, for frying
8 squabs
8 slices of bacon, halved
3 cups red or green seedless grapes

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

In a small bowl, blend the butter with the juniper and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a large skillet, heat 1/4 inch of vegetable oil until shimmering. Season the squabs with salt and pepper.

Add 4 of the squabs to the skillet, breast side down, and cook over moderately high heat, turning a few times, until richly browned all over, about 12 minutes. Repeat with the remaining squab, adding more oil to the skillet as needed.

Arrange the squabs breast side up on a large, rimmed baking sheet. Rub the squab cavities with the juniper butter. Arrange 2 bacon halves on each squab breast in a single layer. Scatter the grapes around the squab and roast in the upper third of the oven for about 15 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the legs registers 125°F for medium-rare meat.

Transfer the squab to a carving board and let rest for about 5 minutes. Using a large knife, cut each squab in half, cutting through the breast bone. Transfer the squabs to plates. Spoon the grapes and roasting juices on top and serve.

sweet lime chicken

Serves 2

The only reason lime ended up in the recipe is that I had a half-lime left and like all lonely items, it motivated a meal. This time of baked chicken, juicy and full of sweet-tasting flavour.

2 chicken breasts
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp orange juice
1 tbsp pineapple juice
1 tsp fresh basil, chopped
1 fresh lime
Fresh-ground pepper
Slices of pineapple

Preheat your oven to 350˚F.

Coat the bottom of a shallow baking dish with butter. Skin the breasts and place smooth-side up in the dish. Pour on the wine, the juices, then top the chicken with the basil, the brown sugar and a liberal sprinkling of fresh-ground pepper.

Place slices of pineapple on top of the chicken, then squeeze on all the lime juice you can from a freshly-halved lime.

Bake for 2 hours, covering the chicken loosely with a square of foil. Remove, then bake for an additional 20 minutes or so until golden brown.

If you wish, you may add more pineapple juice to the gravy, then thicken it a bit more with a teaspoon or so of cornstarch mixed with cold water. Serve with a parsley and crab apple garnish.

Match: A white might seem obvious but that’s for a good reason. Open a New Zealand Sauv Blanc.

grilled cornish hens in spicy port marinade

I have about 6 feet of cookbooks on my library shelf, and like you, I’m surprised how little I use most of them. Good reading, mind you. Good ideas. Pretty pictures. But also like you, I scan them for ideas, then go my own way. On the subject of small birds, this one, from Joy of Cooking, looked great. Anything spicy is for me. If you’re a gas user, you’ll need to adjust.

Combine in a large shallow baking dish:

2 cups ruby port
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil

Combine and coarsely grind:

2 tsp juniper berries
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp cracked black peppercorns

Add the spices to the baking dish, along with:

1 small onion or 2 scallions, coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, lightly crushed
1 tbsp peeled minced fresh ginger

Using a knife or poultry shears, butterfly 4 small Cornish hens

Place in the marinade and turn to coat. Marinate in the refrigerator, covered, preferably overnight; turn the hens frequently to distribute the marinade evenly. Half an hour before grilling, remove the hens from the fridge.

Prepare a medium hot grill fire. Spread the hot coals in the centre of the grill. Arrange the hens skin side down in a ring around the coals. Cover the grill and open the vents completely.

After 10 minutes, turn the hens and move them directly over the coals. Cook for 15 minutes more. Turn again and cook for 5 minutes more. The hens are done when the thigh registers 180˚F on a thermometer.

Match: Serve with a fresh, thick red like a Brunello.


Our West Coast wordsmith Duncan Holmes likes to cook all parts of the meal—hot and cold apps for the eyes; big, generous mains, where timing, color and taste come together on sparkling, white plates—and there’s always enough for seconds. But it’s at dessert time when he really shines. Not with precious fancy dancy, but with a melt-in-your-mouth-pastry apple pie. Granny Smiths, of course, and French vanilla ice cream.

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