Bird Hunting photo

Photo by Johnny Miller

This is an easy, satisfying, and unusual dish for welcoming in autumn. Grilling grapes may sound crazy, but the smoky, blistered char they get from a few minutes on the fire gives them a deep, winelike character. Any gamebird you happen to have can replace the quail, with equally delicious results. Accompany this with a bold, rustic, fruit-forward red wine, like a Primitivo from Puglia in Italy or a classic American red Zinfandel.

-4 quail, dressed
-1⁄4 cup olive oil
-About 1 lb. seedless red grapes, in bunches
-4 1⁄2 cups chicken stock
-2 Tbsp. butter
-1 bay leaf
-1 1⁄4 cups polenta
-1⁄4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
-4 fresh sausages, mild Italian or other variety
-4 sprigs fresh thyme
-Good-quality balsamic vinegar, for drizzling
-Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1. Light a medium-hot fire in your grill. Prepare the quail for grilling by rubbing each bird with about 1 tsp. olive oil and seasoning with salt and pepper. Divide the grapes into four or more small bunches, and in a large bowl gently toss them with the remaining olive oil, coating the grapes as best you can without knocking them off their stems. Salt and pepper the grapes.

2. Make the polenta: Bring the chicken stock, butter, and bay leaf to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Whisk the polenta into the liquid a little at a time, to keep it from clumping, and continue to whisk until the mixture returns to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and cover. Cook for about 25 minutes, stirring frequently to make sure the polenta isn’t scorching, until the mixture is creamy. (If it seems too stiff, just add water.) Remove the bay leaf, stir in the cheese, and keep warm.

3. Meanwhile, place the sausages on the grill. Roll them around so that they cook evenly. Grill the sausages for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the juices run clear when pricked. (You can also slice one in half to check more thoroughly.) After a few minutes, add the quail to the grill, and cook until the birds are golden brown and their inner thigh meat is slightly pink, about 5 to 6 minutes per side. (Spatchcocked birds—see butchering tip below—will cook faster.) Remove the sausages and quail to a platter to rest.

4. Grill the grapes: Set the bunches on the grill and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the grapes are blistered and a few have begun to shrivel.

5. Divide the polenta between four plates. Top each with a sausage, a quail, and a bunch of grapes. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar as well as any juices that might have collected while the quail and sausage were resting, and sprinkle with a few thyme leaves. Serves 4.

Butchering Your Bird
I’ve found that “spatchcocking” quail—meaning, removing the backbone so the quail lies flat—results in a much more evenly cooked bird. To do this, put the quail breast-side down on a cutting board and, with poultry shears, make parallel cuts along the backbone to remove it. Open the quail like a book and lay it flat.