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Saturday, June 15, 2013 - Page updated at 12:00 p.m.

Nancy Leson throws some spices on the quail and the quail on the grill

By Nancy Leson
Seattle Times food writer

"HAVE I TOLD you about the quail that used to live in the yard?" Mac asks each time I tell him we're having quail for dinner.

Why, yes. Yes, you did. But please (cough!) do tell me again.

The tale of the quail begins in 1979, when my husband, a native Chicagoan, moved into his house in Edmonds. Apparently, two coveys of wild California quail enjoyed the backyard shrubbery as much as he did. Each was ruled by a rooster with several hens in his harem, says Mac, whose fine-feathered friends greeted him with their familiar call: "Chi-CA-go! Chi-CA-go!"

Those quail found splendor in the grass for several years — until they disappeared, never to be seen again.

"Damn cats!" Mac says, offering the same punch line each time he tells the story, placing the blame on the feisty felines that roamed the neighborhood.

Frankly, I think the quail had a premonition I'd be showing up some day.

I get my quail the easy way: I buy them. You should, too, because these most un-gamey of game birds are finger-licking good hot off the grill.

Cultures worldwide, from Mexico to the Mediterranean, revere the small birds whose wee breasts and diminutive drumsticks taste like chicken hatched in a Lilliputian heaven.

And while I see quail on restaurant menus less often than I used to, my cookbook shelves prove that it remains a favorite among Seattle chefs.

In "Ethan Stowell's New Italian Kitchen," Stowell recommends snagging the biggest quail you can find and opting for semi-boneless — then stuffing the birds with pancetta, lacinato kale and sage before roasting them.

Pan-fry first then oven-roast, says Tommy D, whose "Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen" provides a recipe for semi-boneless, buttermilk-fried quail paired with corn and blueberry salad (perfect for the summer season).

But I'm with Poppy's Jerry Traunfeld, who prefers his quail bony and whole (save for the backbone, snipped out with kitchen shears), simply marinated and grilled.

In his classic "The Herbfarm Cookbook," he suggests an overnight marinade of extra-virgin olive oil and fresh thyme sprigs; a swift drip-dry session; salt and pepper to season, then a quick trip to the grill, crisping the birds breast-side down first (6 to 8 minutes) before turning them for 6 to 8 minutes longer, taking care not to char them.

I buy my birds frozen at 99 Ranch Market. Farmed from a big outfit in Georgia (and available at other Asian supermarkets) they cost less than $10 for a "jumbo" six-pack. When I want to up the ante, I go for the high-end version, available at specialty stores like University Seafood & Poultry, where organically grown Oregon quail is available whole ($4.29 each) or semi-boneless ($5.49). My family of three can knock back a dozen, but two per person is the norm.

Here's my recipe, meant for tweaking to suit your taste:

Grab some olive oil and your favorite spices. I like a mix of fresh-ground cumin and coriander, turmeric, ground cinnamon, Aleppo pepper and kosher salt — a heaping teaspoon per bird. You might grab salt, pepper and sweet paprika, or your favorite store-bought spice rub, or some Lawry's Seasoning Salt.

Use your hands to oil the birds, wash and dry your mitts well, then use your dominant hand to generously sprinkle the spices while flipping the oily bird with your other. Cover and refrigerate for several hours, then go outside and get grilling.

Nancy Leson is the Pacific NW food writer. Reach her at Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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