Hail to quail: Dish wins top honors in Wild About Game Cook-Off

October 31, 2001|By Rob Kasper

A KEY TO cooking game birds, said Cathy Whims, is keeping them moist. So when Whims, a Portland, Ore., chef, found herself in a game-cooking competition facing about a half-dozen quail, she quickly decided to stuff the birds with figs.

"When you stuff quail, the moisture from inside the birds keeps them from drying out," she said. "But you don't put too much stuffing in; otherwise it will ooze out and burn."

Whims kept a close eye on the stuffed quail as she browned them in bacon and duck fat in a large frying pan, flamed them with Marsala wine, then popped them in a 400-degree oven until the meat felt "spongy," a step that took about 5 minutes.

Her efforts resulted in a succulent dish and first place in the first Wild About Game Cook-Off, held two weeks ago at the Resort at the Mountain in Welches, a town of tall pines and verdant golf courses about 40 miles southeast of Portland.

This was a "black box" contest, meaning that the 11 chefs in the competition were presented with a box containing some kind of farm-raised game. Among the possibilities were squab, elk, partridge, pheasant, buffalo, rabbit, wild boar and lamb. Once the chefs had been given their game, they had a few hours to prepare a menu, whip up an entrM-ie and side dishes, choose an accompanying wine and present the completed culinary creation to a panel of four judges.

Whims was worried she would have to cook elk, which she had never tried before. But she got lucky when she drew quail. Not only had she cooked it at Genoa, the 30-seat restaurant in southeast Portland where she is chef, she also was familiar with the type of quail that sat before her.

"They were semiboneless, they didn't have a rib cage, which meant they cooked fast. I know, I have overcooked them before."

Whims' quail dish came out of the oven in fine shape, even though she later realized that she had failed to use one ingredient in her recipe - chopped shallots. "After I had sent the dish out, I looked around and there was the bowl of shallots," Whims said. By then, it was too late.

Her Qualgie Con Fiche, a brace of semiboneless quail pan-roasted with a sauce of homemade fig jam, accompanied by polenta and braised greens, and a glass of Three Rivers 1999 Syrah carried the day. It impressed the panel of judges: Janie Hibler, author of several game cookbooks including a 1999 James Beard award winner, Wild About Game; Leif Eric Benson, chef at Oregon's Timberline Lodge; Barbara Durbin, food writer for The Oregonian newspaper; and yours truly.

We judges spent a Saturday afternoon sampling game draped in sauces made with local fragrant fresh mushrooms and fat berries, sipping remarkable Oregon wines, and then picking our four favorite dishes.

The quail edged out pan-roasted squab with wild mushroom risotto cakes, roasted winter squash and root vegetables, served with a Facelli 1999 Sangiovese.

The squab, which had been prepared by Rocky Maselli, the chef at MarchM-i Restaurant in Eugene, Ore., finished slightly ahead of the grilled elk strip loin on a bed of chanterelles, Swiss chard and acorn squash topped with caramelized pear, served with a Three Rivers 1999 Syrah. Billy Schumacher of Taqueria Nueve restaurant in Eugene came up with the elk creation.

The pan-roasted lamb with root vegetable risotto cakes, lobster mushroom confit and orange/cranberry lamb demiglace, served with a Cameron 1999 Arley's Leap Pinot Noir, garnered an honorable mention. It was prepared by Jay Entrikin of Nicky USA, a Portland-area company that provided the game for the contest. It was, the judges agreed, a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

While Whims, 45, has worked in the Portland area for the last 20 years, she told me she had many ties to the East Coast. She went to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she landed her first paid cooking gig, baking desserts at Pyewacket Restaurant.

During her college days, she would travel to Maryland's Eastern Shore to visit her parents, who then lived in Easton. Her father liked to hunt, and the family would occasionally enjoy a dinner of wild roast goose, cooked by her mother, Ann.

Ann Whims, who now lives in Baltimore, was in Oregon last week visiting her daughter. I spoke with her on the telephone. A proud mother, she marveled at the sophisticated cooking techniques - browning, flaming and oven-roasting - that her daughter now employs to produce moist, flavorful farm-raised game birds.

She said that when she was cooking wild goose in Easton, she used a much simpler method she found in Hibler's 1983 book, Fair Game: A Hunter's Cookbook. She heated the oven to 500 degrees, put the goose in, turned the heat off, then didn't open the oven door for one hour. This method operates on a wild goose because, unlike farm-raised birds, it has very little fat.

"It wasn't complicated," Ann Whims said. "But it always worked."

Cathy Whims' Qualgie Con Fichi

Serves 6

FIG JAM:

2/3 cup sugar

juice from one lemon

1 pint fresh figs, halved and stemmed

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