Artusi’s August: Pan roasted quail risotto
August in Italy means one thing: holidays. And not just any holiday, but the biggest holidays of the year: Ferragosto. August 15th has been celebrated in Italy since ancient times, when most likely it was a celebration of a summer’s worth of hard work in the fields. The Ancient Romans celebrated Ferragosto in honour of Diana, goddess of fertility, and Emperor Augustus (if it is a hint at all, the name Ferragosto comes from the Latin “feriae Augusti” or Augustus’ holidays). The Roman Catholic church cleverly turned this pagan holiday ritual into a religious one, which it still is today.
It is a day that almost every Italian takes off to celebrate at home (or the home away from home, as many, many Italians go to the sea for their summer holidays) with the entire extended family, over a big, long lunch.
There is an old-fashioned saying in Italian, “Per Ferragosto si mangiano i piccioni arrosto,” which orders that roasted pigeons are to be eaten for Ferragosto, but while this is generally no longer the case and the menus change depending on where you are in the peninsula, the long lunch is a guaranteed part of Ferragosto.
The ever-dependable Pellegrino Artusi has not only suggested two menus for the month of August (where he includes one of my favourite antipasti, “popone con prosciutto e vino generoso,” melon with prosciutto and generous servings of wine) but he even has a separate lunch menu just for that favourite Italian holiday, Ferragosto.
He suggests starting the meal with this dish of rice cooked with whole quails, followed by fritters, poached chicken with salsa tonnata, stewed ox “alla moda,” and for dessert, Neapolitan style pastries such as rum-soaked babà and home made chocolate gelato. Good thing you have the rest of the day off for a lie-down after this meal.
While they’re not pigeons, the quails intrigued me, also for the fact that they are cooked whole, together with the rice for this impressive, but rustic one pot dish. I found that it was easier to pan-roast the quails first before adding any of the other ingredients, and so have changed (ever so slightly) Artusi’s method. The rest of the recipe remains the same, even though I found his 100 grams of rice to be quite generous for a first course dish.
Qualie col riso, n.44, or Pan roasted quail risotto
- 400 grams of arborio rice
- 4 whole, clean quails
- ½ an onion
- 75 grams of prosciutto
- good chicken broth, or a dry white wine (or a mixture of both for a total of about 1.5 litres of liquid)
- a knob of butter
- olive oil
- salt and pepper
- a handful of Parmesan cheese, finely grated
- 6-8 sage leaves (optional, this isn’t mentioned in Artusi’s recipe but I think it works nicely)
Finely chop the onion and prosciutto and set aside.
Season the clean quails with salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. In a wide and deep skillet (you will use this to cook the rice in as well), pan roast the quails over high heat. Without moving too much, allow to sear on one side until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes, then turn, repeating on all sides.
When the birds are golden brown, turn the heat down to medium and add the chopped onion and prosciutto to the pan with the knob of butter and a further drizzle of olive oil to stop the butter from burning. Cook, stirring, until the onion softens, then add the rice.
Continue stirring and allow to cook for a couple of minutes in the dry pan, until the rice grains become translucent with white centres.
Add a ladle full of broth or wine and allow to cook slowly, stirring now and then until the liquid is absorbed. Add another ladle of broth and continue this way for about 15 minutes, or until the rice is al dente – you want it to have a little bite to it but not too much!
Artusi points out to keep the rice more liquid or drier, as you prefer it, so in the last ladle full, allow the rice to absorb as much or as little of the liquid as you wish. Serve immediately, seasoned with some finely grated Parmesan cheese.