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Quarantine Cuisine: Joël Robuchon's Quail

As quarantine drags into the 40-plus day timeframe, I find myself seeking increasingly interesting and challenging dishes to keep myself busy.

The mighty Joël Robuchon, in his time the world's most decorated chef, passed away in August of 2018. His glittering portfolio of restaurants spans the globe, none more prolific than his chain of "Ateliers," which were a controversial and pioneering concept when he first introduced them––in the highest echelons of French cuisine, the ability to order à la carte was quite gauche, and Robuchon's Ateliers, with their hyper-modern black and red furnishings and open kitchen with bar-style seating surrounding, caused quite a stir in the food world, perhaps changing it forever.

These days, the dozen Ateliers, all largely the same, fit into a rather sleek, corporate, overpriced-unless-you-have-an-expense-account sort of vibe, while some of the shiniest of them (such as the three-star "L'Atelier" in Hong Kong) still boast two or three Michelin stars and are legitimate culinary destinations. Robuchon's most famous dishes are on offer at all of these spots, and when he passed away, I happened upon an Eater article that spotlighted just a few of these culinary wonders.

I tried cooking this dish, called "La Caille," once, shortly after Robuchon passed in 2018; my friend Cullen was my brave guinea pig. I can't remember if it was part of our tasting menu at L'Atelier in Vegas several years ago (to this day my only visit to a Robuchon joint), but I would not be surprised. "La Caille" is perhaps his most famous signature dish––quail stuffed with foie gras, glazed with soy and honey and served alongside his pommes purée (fancy French way of saying "mashed potatoes") and a simple herb salad. When I tried cooking it in 2018, it was tasty, but I failed to execute it as precisely as I would have liked and wound up with something that vaguely resembled Robuchon's classic.

One of the reasons I didn't succeed as much was I didn't have access to something that could sous vide the quail breast, and so the breast lost its shape and the foie just bled out into the pan rather than being comfortably cooked inside the breast. Now that I have my handy-dandy Instant Pot, sous vide wouldn't be an issue.

Side note: Let me just say a word about foie gras, for those of you with your hackles up––foie has a terrible reputation in terms of the way that ducks are treated for the creation of the delicacy, and with some good reason. For many decades, foie gras farms did employ not-so-great practices, particularly in Europe, and there are those farms who still treat their animals poorly and engage in outdated, cruel practices. The world and our collective consciousness about ethical farming has changed dramatically, however, and the sensationalized reporting about foie farms from animal ethics groups is, writ large, overblown, outdated, under-researched, and unrepresentative of reality. There are only two foie farms in the U.S., from which nearly all of the restaurants who serve foie get their stock, and these farms feature much more humane treatment of their ducks, including free-ranging, pain-free feeding, barns with plenty of space, air, and light, etc. In fact, both farms actively invite people to come to their facilities, armed with cameras, to see exactly what happens. The foie you buy in the U.S. comes from birds that are far better-treated than those which produce the generic eggs you purchase at the supermarket, and when was the last time you checked out the practices where your eggs come from?

I recommend this article for a fascinating, measured look inside one of these foie farms, the very same farm from which I got my foie gras for this meal. (Here and here are also some good articles). Again, like with any animal product, you can avoid cruel practices if you do your research and know your producers.

D'Artagnan is a distributor of gourmet products that is well-regarded in the restaurant industry, and seeking some interesting and different proteins to feature on the blog, I made an order for a handful of things from them, which arrived this past week. Among these were four semi-boneless quail and a couple of slices of foie gras, both intended for this dish. Pretty amazing that you can prepare a three-Michelin-star dish, or at least a rough copy of one, in the comfort of your own home!

* * *

The quail held a special place in Robuchon's cuisine, but this dish is perhaps his most famous preparation. The easiest way to deal with quail as a non-trained, home chef is to order them cleaned and "semi-boneless," like I did from D'Artagnan. This recipe calls for two quail breasts and two quail legs per person, meaning you'll need four quails to prepare the whole thing for two––a quail is not a large bird. D'Artagnan sells theirs in packs of four, and I purchased the pack for just $20.

You'll first need to remove the legs, which will be cooked separately, from the corpus of the quail. Then, if you've gotten the semi-boneless prepared quail, like I did, you'll need to trim off the wings and any excess bits attached to the breast.

Once you have isolated the breast, you'll "stuff" with foie. Robuchon doubtless got his quail whole, and would clean the bird in the restaurant, which meant the breast was nicely intact, and you could create a little "pocket" inside. Sadly, the breasts of the prepared, semi-boneless quail I ordered were torn up from the de-boning a bit, so I couldn't really create a pocket. My solution was just to wrap a piece of foie inside the breast and make a shape enclosing the foie with a piece of Saran wrap. A foie gras terrine (cooked) is recommended by chefs I have seen preparing this dish––I had raw foie, which I sautéed lightly before stuffing into the bird. The aromas, I'm telling you... drool.

After you've created a shape with each breast that encloses the foie, pour a little bit of chicken broth into each wrapping, seal all of them in a bag, and sous vide. If you don't have the means to sous vide, you can blanche it in some hot water, inside the Saran wrap, being careful not to overcook, and making sure the Saran is sealed tightly. The sous vide method involves cooking at 135 degrees for about 40 minutes.

For the legs, you'll want to cook low and slow, somewhat like a confit. We had a couple extra slices of foie after I stuffed the breast, so I seared them for a little pre-dinner treat, and wound up with a healthy amount of rendered foie fat in the pan, which I used to cook the quail legs. On low heat, let the fat render, and then, keeping the heat low, flip the legs a few times until the meat is nearly melty. This can be done while the breast is sous vide-ing. Be careful with heat––too low and the legs will not cook, but too high and the meat will get tough. Just maintain a tiny sizzle and keep an eye on them.

After sous vide, you'll want to lightly sauté the breasts in a bit of fat to get them a nice golden brown. Once the breasts are ready, prepare a sauté pan with garlic, honey, and soy sauce, heat it up and let it reduce a bit, and put the quail legs and breasts into the pan, shaking it about and flipping to give each side of each piece of meat a nice glaze. Note that this is really the only seasoning of the meat you'll need––the soy sauce gives the meat salinity, so you don't need to blast the breasts or legs with salt while doing the preliminary cooking.

To complete this, after glazing, I took my butane torch and crisped up the outside, sort of like a brûlée, giving the quail a nice crisp on the outside. If you quail still has skin, make sure to brûlée the side of the breasts that has the intact skin for a lovely, crispy finish.

* * *

Robuchon's potatoes are perhaps his most famous contribution to Western cuisine, which is saying something, considering a mashed potato isn't the most complex thing in the world. I have never had the equipment (or correct variety of potato) to truly make Robuchon potatoes, but I have come pretty darn close with what I have.

Ratte potatoes are a small, golden French variety, with a firm flesh and nutty flavor, and were Robuchon's potato of choice for his magnum opus. I opted for the closest thing I could find––smaller, Yukon gold potatoes.

The potatoes first need to be boiled until tender and peeled while hot, which is mashed potato 101. After peeling, Robuchon commands that you pass the potatoes through a food mill, which I have never possessed, and which isn't an Amazon Prime "priority" item these days. A version of his recipe from another chef advocates for a potato ricer as an alternative, but my potato ricer turned out to be a piece of crap and bent itself beyond repair last time I made potatoes. The recipe also demands a tamis, or a flat fine-mesh sieve. If you have none of these devices, you can just be very vigorous with your mashing. My current tool combines the potato masher with something sort of resembling a ricer on top, and it works well, though it takes a lot of manual labor to get a smooth mash.

Once you mash the potatoes to absolute smooth perfection, you'll need to heat the mash over a very low heat to allow the moisture to evaporate. Then, you'll begin whisking in butter.

A LOT of butter.

How much butter? According to Joël, it should be a two-to-one potatoes-to-butter ratio by weight. Make sure the butter is excellent quality, cold, unsalted, and cut into small cubes, adding a few at a time and stirring like mad to incorporate.

More butter than this.

You'll also want to add a little bit of whole milk in the midst of adding the butter to get the signature fluffy, silky texture. If the taters look dry, a bit of milk goes a long way.

For this dish, Robuchon almost always included some black truffle with the taters, something I don't have in just chilling my pantry, so I threw a bit of D'Artagnan's truffle butter into the mix. The trouble with truffle butter is that almost no truffle butter uses real truffles, but instead uses "truffle oil," another misnomer, since very few truffle oils contain any actual truffle, either. Instead, it's a perfume-y imitation, something common in various bistros and bar-food places sporting the stuff on their fries. D'Artangnan's is also made with truffle oil, but supplemented with earthy porcini mushrooms, which makes it a passable alternative. A bit of salt will bring the mash together in melty, buttery goodness.

* * *

The last components are pretty easy––the first is an herb salad, which isn't hard to put together. I gathered some parsley, dill, and sort of sad-looking tarragon from the supermarket, and prepared a simple vinaigrette out of melted truffle butter, minced shallot, the juice from a blood orange I'd used as a garnish on our cocktails the night before, dijon, and salt and pepper. A little heap of the herb salad on the plate is an important palate cleanser for the otherwise rather rich dish. Careful with the tarragon––it can overpower the more delicate dill. I used a bit too much!

The last step is a chicken jus to drizzle atop. There isn't really a proper recipe for Robuchon's permutation of this dish floating around out there on the Internets, so I just made a reduction of chicken broth, garlic, onion, and the remaining foie fat. I heated the foie fat, and then added the shallot and garlic, cooking until fragrant and transparent. I then added the chicken broth (get good-quality stock––Swanson won't do) and reduced the mixture by half, straining out into a sauce boat.

* * *

I recommend making the potatoes and jus while the breasts are undergoing sous vide, and keeping them warm, and then dressing the salad and finishing the quail right before plating. To plate, take two breasts per plate and set alongside one another, "posing" two (or more, if you like) confit legs per plate alongside.

Then, add a dollop of potatoes to the plate. The traditional "Robuchon" way of serving these potatoes is always to include a cocotte of more potatoes alongside. I happened to have some little cocottes, so in them I served more potatoes, just in case we wanted them (spoiler: we very much wanted them).

Pick up the dressed herb salad with tongs and place in a little mountain on the plate.

Finally, drizzle the chicken jus over the quail, and anywhere else you might like it.

* * *

This is a truly decadent, spectacular meal, and I could not recommend it more. It is surprisingly inexpensive and easy to execute as well, which is an added bonus! If chicken is the only game bird in your life, definitely consider expanding and trying your hand at some interesting poultry!

As you can see, Berlioz likes quail, too! Seeing the cats go crazy for the little bits of quail we let them taste, we cooked up the leftover pieces of bird we didn't use and let the pets have a little treat.

Wine to cook by: We're making our way through our most recent Alquimista Cellars order, and just had to break open a spectacular bottle to pair with our dinner this evening. Something special that Greg and Patrick have been doing, that I have not seen anyone else do (yet), is making a 90-plus percent pinot meunier red wine. Meunier is a staple of Champagne production, along with pinot noir and chardonnay, but plays third fiddle in most bottles of bubbly. Because it is easier to grow, some Champagne producers view PM as an "insurance policy" for years when the pinot noir and chard have more trouble.

Greg poured some of their PM for me when I visited last January, and at that time it was a sort of oddity among the lineup, but I remember absolutely loving it. The current release vintage, 2018, is the first one they have priced at the same level as their out-of-this-world single-vineyard pinot noirs. The prized van der Kamp vineyard, perched smack dab between Napa and Sonoma on the Sonoma mountain, produces the fruit for probably my favorite of the Alquimista single-vineyard pinot noirs, and the meunier comes from the same vineyard. This is a delicate and soft, yet bright and playful wine, with all that I love about Greg and Patrick's pinot noirs; the whole-cluster fermentation adds even more silky, almost savory vegetal nuance to the wine, and the brightness of berries and cherry, combined with flowers, herbs, and tea, made this wine a perfect foil to the heavier and more decadent elements in the quail dish.

Seriously, y'all, if you are in the market for wine, get some of Alquimista's stuff. This is some of the best wine in the U.S., and it's all 25% right now (until end of month), including free shipping, with the code RELIEF. I promise I don't get paid to promote them, I just believe so profoundly in how good this wine is and think you all deserve to experience it!

* * *

Don't be afraid to try new things while cooking at home! They are not as intimidating as they seem, and you may wind up with a new favorite dinner item! See what D'Artagnan and other online purveyors can offer you to challenge and expand your culinary prowess.

We've a few more interesting proteins to feature this coming week, so stay tuned! We also have our first "Brunch" edition blog, some vegetarian fare (by request!), and more tasty things.

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