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The Tough Get Going

The Revival of Tender Squab Could Send Other Poultry Packing

April 01, 2001|MARTIN BOOE | Martin Booe last wrote for the magazine about Hawaiian poke

Once upon a time, the savvy gourmet looking to indulge in the peak poultry experience was most likely to dine on squab. But few people nowadays even know what a squab is, this once-fashionable fowl having long ago faded from glory.

Squab is a young pigeon, usually about 4 weeks old, that has never flown and is therefore all the more tender and succulent. (Like most physical beings, pigeons toughen up once they start moving around.) The meat is darkish and delicately flavored, closer to duck than chicken.

Squab was a delicacy in Shakespeare's day, a holiday treat in Victorian England and a menu item on the Titanic. In the early years of the 20th century, Santa Barbara's Potter Hotel had its own "squaberia," and the fowl was featured in such restaurants of Hollywood's golden era as Romanoff's, Chasen's and Ciro's. More recently, chef John Downey at his eponymous restaurant in Santa Barbara has won national acclaim for his rendering of Carpenter squab with raspberry sauce.

Whether or not squab is enjoying a renaissance, it's a treat worth revisiting, and it occupies an interesting place in California's agricultural history. Carpenter Squab Ranch, west of Ojai near Lake Casitas, is widely considered to produce some of the best squab of modern times.

I recently visited Gary Carpenter, whose grandfather started the enterprise in 1921. This makes Carpenter, who appeared frequently on Red Skelton's show in the '60s as a member of the musical group Young Folk, a third-generation squab wrangler. When his show business career ended, he fell back on the family's golden goose, or squab, rather. Although he laments the pigeons' lackluster libido, Carpenter has about as many birds to look after as he desires. Any more would interfere with his tennis game.

His grandfather struggled to perfect his own squab hybrid, a tedious game of pigeon matchmaking aimed at broadening the birds' breasts and lengthening their reproductive years. He carried on a friendly rivalry with an upstate competitor and geneticist, Dr. Hubbell--whose first name Carpenter can't remember but whose bird bested his grandfather's hybrid hands down. When the good doctor passed on, his widow sold the Hubbell hybrid to the Carpenters. For a while, they tried crossbreeding the two, with poor results, and it was the Hubbell hybrid that prevailed.

So why has the squab passed from prominence? Carpenter says it began with the introduction of the less-expensive Cornish game hen, which these days often isn't even Cornish, but merely a youngish chicken. Then came the "squab chicken," another misnomer, which Carpenter likens to a "horse-cow." These were all marketed as cheaper faux squabs, and the real thing became a rarity.

Carpenter, who has long had upscale markets and Chinese restaurants as customers, is now reporting an encouraging upward spike in sales. Apparently the medieval bird is benefiting from some very contemporary technology--Carpenter's Internet distributor.

John Downey's Roast Squab with Fresh Thyme & Garlic

Serves 4

4 squabs

Salt and pepper

1 small bunch fresh thyme

24 garlic cloves, peeled

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 small onion, peeled and sliced

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

1 stalk celery, sliced

1 cup apple juice

3 cups chicken or veal stock

*

Rinse squabs and pat dry. Season inside cavity with salt, pepper, chopped thyme and 6 garlic cloves. Truss with string, then season the exterior of birds. In a large skillet, brown squabs in 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, turning as necessary. Remove from skillet. Add onion, carrot and celery to pan. Saute briefly. Transfer vegetables to large roasting pan and set squabs on top, making sure they don't touch.

Roast at 450 degrees for 20-25 minutes until squab breast feels firm yet springy. Remove squabs from pan and keep warm. Remove garlic cloves from squabs and brown garlic gently in remaining vegetable oil. Add apple juice to roasting pan and reduce to near-dry, then add stock and reduce by half. Strain sauce, add browned garlic and chopped fresh thyme. Skim excess fat and keep warm.

Remove legs and breast meat from squab. Arrange on warm plates with the sauce and garlic cloves.

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