These tiny game birds are prized throughout the Mediterranean for their delicate flavor, which is milder and sweeter than that of many other game birds. As they can be so small, we found the major challenge was to get the skin golden brown before the flesh overcooked. Brining and drying the skin well insured us somewhat against this latter risk at the expense of the former. Direct heat from a just-smoking skillet allowed all the surface moisture to be shed and jump-started our browning process. Finishing the birds in a 500-degree oven furthered the bronzing and didn’t allow enough time for the quail to dry out. Turning to a classic eastern Mediterranean staple, we glazed the skin with pomegranate molasses in two applications. This not only richly burnished the skin but offered complementary sweet, sour, and fruity notes. Cinnamon and thyme contributed a warming woodsiness that paired well with our perfectly cooked meat. Quail is often sold with the neck still attached; you can remove it with kitchen shears, if desired. If you can’t find pomegranate molasses, you can make your own.
1. Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 500°F. Set wire rack in aluminum foil–lined rimmed baking sheet and spray with vegetable oil spray. Dissolve 1/2 cup salt in 2 quarts water in large container. Submerge quail in brine and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
2. Remove quail from brine, pat dry with paper towels, and season with pepper. Working with 1 quail at a time, make incision through meat of one drumstick, using tip of paring knife, about 1/2 inch from tip of drumstick bone. Carefully insert other drumstick through incision so legs are securely crossed. Tuck wingtips behind back.
3. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Brown 4 quail on all sides, about 4 minutes; transfer to prepared rack. Repeat with remaining 1 tablespoon oil and remaining 4 quail.
4. Combine pomegranate molasses (see recipe below), thyme, cinnamon, and 1/8 teaspoon salt in bowl. Brush quail evenly with half of pomegranate molasses mixture and roast for 5 minutes. Brush quail with remaining pomegranate molasses mixture and continue to roast until well browned and breasts register 160°F and thighs register 175°F, 7 to 13 minutes. Transfer quail to serving platter and let rest for 5 minutes. Serve.
Makes 2/3 cup
1. Combine water and sugar in medium saucepan until sugar is completely moistened. Bring to boil over medium-high heat and cook until sugar begins to turn golden, 2 to 3 minutes, gently swirling saucepan as needed to ensure even cooking. Continue to cook until sugar begins to smoke and is color of peanut butter, about 1 minute. Off heat, let caramel sit until mahogany brown, 45 to 60 seconds. Carefully swirl in 2 tablespoons pomegranate juice until incorporated; mixture will bubble and steam. Slowly whisk in remaining pomegranate juice and lemon juice, scraping up any caramel.
2. Bring mixture to boil over high heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until tight, slow-popping bubbles cover surface and syrup measures 2/3 cup, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool slightly, then transfer to container and continue to cool to room temperature. If you overreduce the syrup, you can slowly whisk in warm water as needed to measure 2/3 cup. Use pomegranate molasses immediately or refrigerate in airtight container for up to 1 month.