Consider this more of a historical experiment than a culinary one. But don't get me wrong, it was indeed a culinary EXPERIMENT--my first time cooking quail, and a somewhat rare occurrence of cooking meat; I'm just not sure how much I can endorse this as an enjoyable pie to eat. But I've deemed 2013 the year of the savory pie, so I guess there was no other way to start but to dive right in...
I initially set out to make a "modernized" version of 4 and 20 Blackbirds Pie from the Mother Goose nursery rhyme (more on that
Stargazy Pie is a Cornish dish, traditionally made with pilchards, or sardines. Their heads are baked sticking out of the crust, giving the appearance that they're gazing at the sky, but this practice also allows the oils and juices from the fish to flow back into the pie, making it moist. The pie originates from the small fishing village of Mousehole in Cornwall and is usually served on Tom Bawcock's Eve, celebration the heroics of fisherman it's named after. The story, dating back to the 16th century, goes that one Christmas the town was nearing starvation, as storms had been raging on the coast, grounding all the fishing boats. On December 23rd, the brave Bawcock ventured out to see, scored a catch, and made it safely home, thus saving Christmas and the entire village population. The whole catch, which included 7 different types of fish, was then said to have been baked into a pie. As I child, I remember reading about this story in the children's book The Mousehole Cat.
Along with the usual fish, stargazy pie is a hearty affair, generally containing heaps of onions and potatoes. I ended up combining the two recipes I found, using quail, but instead of opting for the Middle Eastern-inspired filling that Pieminister uses, I made an adapted version of Alton Brown's dried fruit stuffing for more of a mincepie flair. In the end, the flavor was great, but I honestly had a bit of a mental block--the tininess of the quail made me a little uncomfortable, as did their little legs sticking out of the crust (more crustgazy than stargazy)! Like I said, this was more of a historical exercise than a culinary one--it did make me think why some recipes persist and some fall out of favor. It didn't suit my taste, but perhaps those less squeamish than me will just eat this up.
Stargazy Quail Pie
An amalgamation of recipes by Pieminister and Alton Brown
Nothing-in-the-House pie crust
4 Tblsp. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
6 oz. mixed dried fruit (apricots, figs, and crystalized ginger)
1/4 c. pine nuts, lightly toasted
1 small bunch of thyme, leaves picked and chopped
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. paprika
zest of 1 lemon
2 Tblsp. lemon juice
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1 1/2 Tblsp. unsalted butter
4 quails (defrosted, if frozen)sea salt
1. Prepare the Nothing-in-the-House pie crust as per the directions. Chill dough at least 1 hour. Once chilled, roll out 1/2 of pie crust and fit into a 8 or 9-inch greased and floured deep casserole dish. You can choose to roll out the top-crust now and refrigerate it flat, or roll it out once you've prepared the filling. Either way, you should put both the remaining crust and the pie pan in the fridge while you prepare the filling.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Heat 2 Tblsp. olive oil in a pan, add the onion and garlic and cook over very low heat 15-20 minutes until onions are translucent and golden. Transfer to a medium-sized bowl and add dried fruit, pine nuts, thyme, spices, and lemon zest and juice. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
3. Heat remaining 2 Tblsp. olive oil and butter in a frying pan or skillet large enough to hold the quails. Rinse birds, then place them in the pan and season them with salt and pepper. Fry for about 5 minutes on each side until golden. Remove them from the heat and stuff loosely with filling.
4. Put remaining filling into the bottom of the pie crust and make 4 spaces to hold the quails. Put them in so that their legs are sticking up and arrange the filling around them so they stay upright. Roll out the other crust half if you haven't already. Cut 4 slits in the crust for the quail legs and place on top of the pie. Pull legs through and flute crust to seal. Brush with an egg wash and bake for 40-45 minutes until the crust is golden and the birds are cooked through. Serves 4.