Polenta with songbirds is a highly prized and praised dish in Bergamot, Italy, where polenta has long been a staple. It is also illegal; songbirds have been hunted to near extinction. Mention the local version—polenta with robins stewed in tomato sauce—and you’re likely to hear interesting tales. I heard about them first from Joe Rochioli, who remembers them from his childhood on Westside Road outside of Healdsburg. Newton Dal Pogetto, an attorney in the town of Sonoma, remembers his aunt preparing the dish; Newton sent me a copy of her hand-written cookbook—an historical treasure—but the recipe is not in it, likely because it was such a basic dish that everyone knew how to make it. The dish was popular in many spheres, but it was a staple for poor families. In this modern version, I use quail and pancetta; it’s not as humble a dish but it is entirely legal as well as delicious.
Wine recommendations: Gary Farrell Russian River Pinot Noir, J. Rochioli Pinot Noir, Davis Bynum Le Pinot, Limerick Lane Zinfandel.
- 6 quail, bone-in
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper in a mill
- 1/2 pound pancetta, thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 1/2 cups chicken or duck stock
- 2 tablespoons Glace de Poulet Gold
- 1/2 cup Zinfandel or other medium- bodied dry red wine
- 1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes, preferably Muir Glen brand
- 1 1/2 cups coarse-ground polenta
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 3 ounces Sonoma Cheese Factory Teleme, cut into pieces
- 2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley
Rinse the quail under cool running water and dry them on a tea towel. Season them inside and out with salt and pepper. Wrap each quail in a strip of pancetta, beginning with the quail’s legs, which you should push against the body and secure with the pancetta. Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan set over medium-low heat, carefully set the quail in the pan, and sauté until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Turn the quail over and cook until browned on the other side, about 5 minutes more. Transfer the quail to a plate, add the onion to the pan, and sauté it until it is soft and fragrant, about 15 minutes. Dice the remaining pancetta, add it to the cooked onion, increase the heat to medium, cook for 7 minutes, add the garlic, and cook for 2 minutes more. Add the chicken stock, Glace de Poulet, and red wine, increase the heat to high, and boil until reduced by one-third, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, reduce the heat to low, return the quail to the pan, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring 4 cups of water and the 2 teaspoons of salt to a boil in a large, heavy pot. Pour another 4 cups of water into a second, smaller pot and bring that to a boil, too. Stir the water in the larger pot rapidly with a whisk, moving it in one circular direction to create a vortex. Pour the polenta into the vortex in a thin, steady stream, stirring continuously all the while to prevent the formation of lumps. Continue to stir after all the polenta has been added, and lower the heat so that the mixture simmers slowly rather than boils. When the polenta begins to thicken, replace the whisk with a long-handled wooden spoon. Add 1 cup of the remaining water and continue to stir. Should you find lumps, use the back of the spoon to press them against the sides of the pot until they break up. At this point, you can let the polenta cook on its own; just be sure to keep a close eye on it, stir it frequently so that it does not scorch, and add more water if it becomes too thick.
After 25 minutes, taste the polenta to be sure the grains are tender; if they are not, cook it a little longer. Stir in the butter, season with salt and pepper, add the Teleme, and stir until it is nearly but not entirely melted; you should see little pools of white cheese. Remove the polenta from the heat, let it rest for 4 or 5 minutes, and ladle into individual serving bowls. Set 1 or 2 quail on top of each serving of polenta, taste the sauce, correct the seasoning, and spoon a generous amount of sauce over each quail. Sprinkle each serving with parsley and serve immediately.