Friday, August 21, 2015

Quaglie al Barolo

It all started with a fantastic bottle of Barolo and too many cooks in the kitchen.

Just like at home, there can be too many cooks in a restaurant kitchen as well. And last night given the sparse reservations and ugly weather forecast, we had too many cooks in the kitchen. So, I planned to take the night off and let the line cooks fly on their own. Honestly, they wanted their nitpicky boss out of their hair for a night and so they were dropping hints about me going home all afternoon. They're not as slick as they think they are. But I was happy to play along.

That takes care of the too many cooks bit. But what about the Barolo? Earlier in the week, I had tasted an outstanding Barolo that I just knew that Ann would love. It was delivered yesterday morning. I had been looking for an occasion to break it out for her, to let her taste it blind, and to see how she reacted to it, hoping that she would be as beguiled by the wine as was I.

It All Started with a Bottle of Barolo
I was hooked by the gorgeous room-filling nose that offered hints of anise, rose petals, red raspberries, dried raspberry leaf tea, and other floral and herbaceous notes. Moreover, it tasted equally wonderful! There is nothing more depressing than a wine that smells amazing and then doesn't follow through. I am very impressed by this 2011 Guido Porro Barolo Vigna Santa Caterina. In my book, Nebbiolo, like Pinot Noir, can make highly expressive wines in cooler years and on cooler sites. The wines have less fruit to mask the nuances, both in the nose and on the palate.

Knowing that I was going to serve Barolo with dinner started helping me focus on what to make for dinner. Criteria: simple, flavorful, easy on the waistline, less than an hour from start to finish, and pairs well with Barolo. If we both weren't trying to shed a bunch of excess weight, I would have made a simple but mindblowing risotto ai funghi. But rice and other simple carbs are just not on our diet right now, at least not midweek. Maybe if we are splurging on the weekend.

I started by thinking about proteins, what would pair well and what I had on hand. Barolo rules out seafood. What I really wanted was a roasted guinea hen or barring that, a fat hen chicken. Of course, I had neither on hand. But I did have two spare quail which would suffice. Now what to do with them? Pan sear them and finish with a quick braise in Barolo, naturally. And what to serve with them? Two 4-ounce birds by themselves are not going to feed two hungry adults. Risotto, of course! Ugh, we are not doing risotto until we shed some blubber. So what then?

Lentils to the rescue. Complex carbs and highly satisfying to mangiafagioli such as Ann and I. And lentils are a great foil, almost as great as rice (but not quite), for wild mushrooms.

Matsutake Mushrooms
Once I decided on lentils, I took inventory of what else I had on hand and of course, I already had mushrooms in mind. With the Japanese economy struggling, demand for matsutake mushrooms is off and the consequent price decrease means that they are barely affordable this year as opposed to not being affordable at all, Japan by far being the largest market for US matsutake.

Lentils Cooking Away
The secret to good lentils (actually, the secret to any dish) is building layers of flavor which I did a variety of ways. I started by cooking mirepoix (onion, carrot, and celery) with reconstituted dried porcini and a bit of slab bacon. I usually use pancetta but for this dish, I decided I wanted a little smokiness to play with the wine. The cooking liquid is mainly water, but I have added a cup of porcini stock and a quarter cup of pork belly goodness, the pork essence that we find congealed in the pork belly roasting pans at the restaurant. We save all this goodness and use it to amplify many dishes. The only catch is that it is very salty (from the pork belly cure) and a very little goes a very long way. A bay leaf rounds out the seasoning.

Barolo-Braised Quail on Porcini Lentils with Matsutake Mushrooms
While the lentils were cooking, I briefly sautéed the matsutake slices and held them warm. Prep for the quail sauce involved dicing a shallot, mincing some reconstituted porcini, dicing an ounce of slab bacon, and mincing some parsley from the garden. When the lentils were fully cooked and the liquid reduced, I gave them a final season and moved them to the back of the stove. The quail I dredged in seasoned Wondra and then cooked them perhaps 90 seconds on each side until they were golden brown.

Removing the quail from the pan to a plate, I started the sauce by adding the bacon, porcini, and shallot to the pan and cooking until the bacon was starting to render and crisp, about 90 more seconds. Into the pan next went a half a cup of Barolo, a couple tablespoons of pork belly goodness, and a half a cup of porcini stock. And back into the pan with the quail. I basted the quail for a minute or so, flipping them once so that the Wondra could do its bit in thickening the sauce slightly. Out of the pan again with the quail and a final reduction of another minute or 90 seconds to finish the pan sauce.

We Ate at the Table like Big People
And then it was off to the dining room, glasses of Barolo in hand, to eat dinner and talk like real people for a good long while. I never get to sit and linger with my wife at the dinner table. What a great night!

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