Quail With Plum Sauce Is as Easy as It Is Elegant

This easy, elegant dish of pan-roasted quail with a plum pan sauce sounds much more complicated than it is.


William Carlos Williams wrote of how irresistible plums are straight from the icebox, but I want to assure you, if you can refrain from immediately eating any plums you encounter, they are equally delectable countless other ways.

Many years ago I spent about a week picking plums up from the ground. I waddled around the orchard on a farm in Burgundy, France, collecting the fruit, which tumbled down from heavy branches at such a rate we could hardly keep up. A lot of the plums had split, and bees were swarming, feeding on the flesh and juices.

The damaged ones went in a large blue barrel, where they would be left to ferment, and that frothy, sour, alcoholic mash was later distilled into eau-de-vie, or plum brandy. The good fruit went into the farmhouse, and we ate them all kinds of sweet ways, in tarts and clafoutis, jams and fruit salads. And, of course, straight out of hand.

prepping plums for sauce

There's another path though, one that isn't linked to dessert. Plums, like many fruits, can make an excellent pan sauce. They deliver plenty of fiber and pectin, which acts as a thickener. They're also tart, even the sweet ones, and that means you almost never need to add another acid like lemon or vinegar to brighten up the sauce; if anything, you need to balance out that tartness with sugar and fat.

I've been on a quail kick recently, buying them from a vendor at the farmer's market and grilling or searing them until browned outside and pink within—because yes, you can eat quail medium-rare or medium. Even if you don't, they're forgiving birds; like duck, they're delicious when pink, but delicious when well done, too.

This is one of those dishes that comes together so easily, with few ingredients, and yet the impression it gives is of something much more labor intensive, the kind of thing you might get served at a rustic yet upscale French restaurant.

Step one is to brown the quail. But before you do that, it helps to decide how you want to prepare them. It's possible you've bought the quail already deboned, which means you don't have to do anything, because it's already been done for you.

If not, you have a couple options. The easiest is to spatchcock the quail, removing their backbones and pressing them flat. Slightly more involved, but still not difficult once you get the hang of it, is to debone them yourself, which turns the quail into beautiful little packages of meat; there aren't any bones to contend with at all, save for the drumsticks and wing bones that remain.

I've written a guide to spatchcocking and deboning quail, with video, so you can see the process in detail. The best part about doing the deboning yourself is that you end up with little bits of quail—wishbones, necks, breastbones and spines—all of which can be used to whip up a very quick and easy little stock.

making quail stock

You don't have to make the stock; water works perfectly well here since this sauce's flavor is more solidly in the plum zone, but the stock will add a little extra depth. If you do, it's as easy as simmering the bones in water with shallot or onion, carrot, garlic, and parsley or thyme if you have them. Frankly, you can boil this stock pretty hard since clarity isn't an issue at all; the plum sauce is as opaque as it gets, so no need to nail a perfectly clear stock.

cooking quail in cast iron skillet

Okay, so back to searing the quail. Put 'em in a lightly oiled cast iron skillet and sear them. It's that simple. If you're using spatchcocked quail, spend a little more time on the skin side, then flip them over to just quickly cook the other side. Deboned quail should get roughly equal time on both sides so that the skin browns all over and the heat evenly cooks the meat from both sides.

Four whole quails cooking in a cast iron skillet

As I mentioned before, you can leave the quail pink in the center, which is the classic way to serve them, or you can cook them all the way up to well done; the meat is dark, like duck, and can handle it without drying out.

Set the quail off to the side to rest, and then make the pan sauce.

Cooked quail resting on sheet tray

Cook minced shallot with some thyme in the skillet, then add diced pitted plums, skin-on, and cook until they start to break down and give up some of their liquid.

making plum sauce for quail

At this point, hit the pan with some stock or water, and continue cooking until the plums become sauce.

All that's left to do is adjust the flavor. This is one of those things where a good recipe will never give you a quantity. I know a lot of cooks who want a concrete answer, but I'd be lying if I told you there was one. It depends too much on what the plums tasted like, and that's a variable I can't account for in a recipe.

finishing plum sauce with honey and butter

Sweeter plums will need less extra sweetness to balance their flavor. Tart plums will need more. You have to trust your own tastes here, and add the sweetener—I chose honey for how well it pairs with the fragrant plums—bit by bit until the sauce tastes balanced to you, tart and sweet in proper harmony.

I finish the sauce with some butter, which adds richness and a satiny texture. It also helps, along with the honey, in keeping the fruit's acidity in check.

Plate it up and serve. There's nothing fresh-from-the-icebox about it, but I don't think you'll mind.

Close up of quail with plum sauce