One glimpse of the elegantly speckled shells at the Santa Monica farmers market and I was 12 again, standing over a cast-iron pan, spatula in hand to lift Lilliputian-size eggs onto a plate in front of an unsuspecting friend, whose eyes popped out at what appeared to be breakfast for leprechauns. My mother remembers, too, how I would hardboil the tiny quail eggs from my backyard aviary and pull them out at school at noon, delighted at the reaction from the other adolescent lunchers.
But the eggs I was looking at now were from Lily's, a Santa Barbara/Fillmore operation that has a stand at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market. Quail eggs can also be found at specialty markets such as Gelson's and in the gourmet food sections of chain markets such as Ralphs. To anyone unacquainted with these diminutive ovoids (which taste like a subtler version of chicken eggs), they probably appear charming but puzzling. Just how long do you cook something that looks like it was invented for Thumbelina?
Alex Scrimgeour, the British-born chef at Alex in West Hollywood, knows exactly how long. He, too, developed an affection for quail eggs as a child, but in his case it was at London restaurants. They were a delicacy to be taken seriously, like caviar and truffles, which probably had something to do with the difficulty of finding them in the English countryside.
I had no difficulty procuring my eggs. They were laid with regularity by a pair of quails I kept in a large outdoor aviary with two golden pheasants, which did not lay eggs but shed incredibly beautiful feathers, which I put into vases. As to the quail eggs, I hadn't a clue what to do with them other than fry or hardboil them.
Scrimgeour, however, uses them with alacrity. Lightly hardboiled, "a minute or two, you don't want that layer of gray between the yolk and the white," they are the stars of a salad Nicoise that is a particular favorite with his diners. He poaches them for a mere 30 seconds in appropriately small (3 1/2-ounce) copper pans and pairs them to great effect with veal sweetbreads in another dish. Carefully fried in clarified butter--"my staff hates when we do this, you have to get so close to the grease when you break the eggs"--they are the signature ingredient in an asparagus salad and also for an amuse bouche of potato leek cake resting on a dab of creme fra'che and topped with smoked salmon, the egg and a chervil dressing.
While Scrimgeour gets his quail eggs from a vendor, he is entranced by the idea of finding a source of free-range eggs. Perhaps the thought takes him back to the verdant English countryside of his childhood. Me, I'm back on a splintery bench at school, carefully peeling a brown-speckled shell with a rapt young audience in attendance.
Quail Eggs Florentine
Adapted by Santa Monica chef Evelyn Silvey
8 quail eggs
2 6-ounce bags baby spinach, washed and stems removed
4 slices white bread, crusts removed
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon shallots, chopped fine
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt to taste
White pepper to taste
Tomato and maui onion salsa
1 tomato, diced
1 small Maui onion or sweet onion, diced
Salt and pepper to taste
Toast the 4 slices of bread in a toaster and butter them. Keep warm in 350-degree oven. In a 5-quart pan over medium heat, melt 1/2 tablespoon butter with the olive oil. Add the shallots and cook until translucent, about 1-2 minutes. Add the spinach and seasonings. Saute, stirring until all of the spinach is cooked. Drain the spinach of any excess juices. Put the spinach on the toast, forming a nest. Reserve in the oven. In a nonstick saute pan over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter, add the quail eggs and fry until done, about 30 seconds. Remove the nests from the oven and place 2 eggs in each nest. Garnish with tomato and onion salsa.
Food stylist: Christine Masterson
Ann Herold is the magazine's managing editor.