Hail to the Quail
Houstonians’ fondness for this succulent game bird is on the rise, as are both native and farm-raised quail numbers
After a five-decade downward spiral showing Texas quail populations plummeting by as much as 75%, the past two years of ample rainfall have sent Texas’ 40,500 bobwhite quail hunters’ hopes soaring airborne like a covey rise. From 2013 to 2015, the “call counts” (the number of times a bobwhite rooster’s distinctive whistle is heard by a trained observer along a 20-mile randomized route), increased from 11.33 to 14.9 in the Gulf Coast Prairies, leapt from 5.97 to 21.05 in South Texas and exploded from 2.91 to 38.29 in the Rolling Plains.
Just as two back-to-back good years can send populations skyrocketing, two bad years can devastate them. Wild quail are short-lived birds with a life span at best of only about two years; however, few live that long, as the annual survival rate for a wild bobwhite quail in Texas hovers at about 8%. Habitat loss, fire ants, eye worms, farm machinery and weather all take a toll. Plus, they’re ground nesters and both their eggs and the quail themselves are incredibly tasty, a favorite dining option of predators such as crows, raccoons, coyotes, snakes, hawks and owls.
And humans … although we’re far more likely to be dining on the nearly 30 million farm-raised quail consumed annually in the U.S., as reported in the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, than we are on wild quail.
“We have quail all over the menu,” says Donnette Hansen, the effervescent owner of Houston’s legendary Rainbow Lodge, flashing her characteristic Amelia Earhart grin. “On the lunch, dinner and brunch menus, and even on the bar menu: It’s one of our most popular items.” Over the holidays, the Rainbow Lodge also sent countless grilled quail—stuffed with cornbread, sausage and sage—out the door on its Holiday-to-Go menu.
“In addition to that,” she continues, “I often include quail in the Wild Game Mixed Grill entrée, as its delicate flavor makes it an ideal entry point for those wishing to sample wild game for the first time.”
Those first-timers will discover what wing-shooting chefs such as Hansen, who hails from Harlingen and grew up hunting quail in South Texas, and I already know: Quail are versatile in the kitchen and delightful on the palate. But before you rush out to purchase a quail gun (Beretta 687 Silver Pigeon V, $4,075), a well-bred quail dog ($1,000 skyward, plus training, veterinarian bills and equipment), ammunition and quail-hunting garb (snake boots, brush pants or chaps, game belt, shooting shirt, blaze orange vest and cap, $1,000-plus) and consider that the average quail hunter spends another $2,000 or so annually on trip-related expenses such as transportation, food, lodging, guides and access, you may wish to grab the smelling salts. Granted, being afield in the magical wild places quail inhabit is its own reward and the pursuit of wild quail can be much more frugal for those of us who hunt public lands and willingly retrieve our own birds, but there’s even a more economical option: sustainably farmed quail.
As many of us seek a healthy start to the new year following the recent holidays’ overindulgent turkey feasts and respite from the monotonous march of the ubiquitous chicken, farmed quail—minimally processed with no antibiotics, hormones, fillers or flavorings—not only provide a welcome alternative to poultry but pack a nutritional wallop as well. A 3½-ounce serving of boneless, skinless quail meat has 134 calories and five grams of fat as compared to 263 calories and 16 grams of fat in the same-sized serving of boneless, skinless chicken breast. In addition, quail provides 26% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin B6 whereas chicken delivers a mere 2% and is higher in most other vitamins and minerals as well. Best of all, the quail portion is more nutritionally dense, more satisfying to the palate and more filling, delivering 21.6 grams of protein as compared to only 14.7 grams in the same amount of chicken breast.
You’ll love quail’s versatility in the kitchen, as well: Braised, roasted, broiled, grilled, smoked, sautéed or fried, it rises to the occasion as do the coveys of its wild brethren. Be adventuresome: Just remember to target an internal temperature of 145° to 165° F, depending on your taste. Juices should run clear, with the meat still slightly pink. To test for doneness, touch the tip of your middle finger to the tip of your thumb, and poke the fleshy base of your thumb with the index finger of your other hand: The quail should feel like that when you poke it—firm, yet springy to the touch.
I’ll still quail hunt on occasion, to be sure. Quail, as do trout, live in magical wild places, and pursuing them in fine company behind elegantly trained quail dogs is balm for the soul. Painfully aware of the fragility of bobwhite populations, I approach these experiences reverently—gratefully and not greedily—lest I arouse the ire of the gods.
So, several times a year when returning to Houston from points west, I’ll stash an ice chest in the Jeep and stop by Lockhart-based Texas Quail Farms (texquail.com), the commercial purveyor that supplies quail to Rainbow Lodge and most other Houston-area restaurants serving quail, as it also sells direct to the public. Order online or do as do I, to save the shipping expense. The quail come frozen, vacuum-sealed, and retain their freshness for a year or more (thaw slowly in the refrigerator to prevent the delicate cell structure from rupturing). At $75 per case for 24 plump, juicy semi-boneless quail, the per-bird cost comes to $3.12, a pauper’s price for such a royal repast.