Southern Voices on Pecans: Aaron Deal, The River and Rail

Southern Voices on Pecans: Aaron Deal, The River and Rail

Southern Voices: Chef Aaron Deal, The River and Rail, Roanoke, VA
By Stephanie Burt

River & Rail is nestled in the Appalachian mountains, a region traditionally known for scratch-made cooking, and it’s a region that Deal knows well since he grew up in North Carolina in its foothills, a short drive to the glades and hikes and bubbling streams of the Blue Ridge. He enjoyed camping with his father in those mountains, and these days, recalls its traditions not only through the menu at his restaurant, but through working with local producers, or even participating in community canning days during the summer.The River and Rail in Roanoke, VA is a restaurant based on Southern ingredients, but elevated beyond the everyday. “We have to justify people coming to dinner for a night out, and so we focus on being an elegant Southern bistro based on scratch cooking,” says executive chef Aaron Deal. “And the right way is usually unfortunately the hard way.”

His own family traditions, however, often centered around holidays -- just like many families -- who would gather at a grandmother’s house for a meal. If it was Thanksgiving, the dessert was always Cybil Deal’s pecan pie, but the chef stresses that not every year was a shining example of the pastry. “Sometimes she’d burn the bottom of the crust a bit,” he recalls, but the family always ate it and acted like nothing was wrong. “It was tradition.”

Sweets and pecans are another tradition, but for his fall menu at the restaurant, he prefers to go main dish instead of dessert with a pecan-crusted quail over a bed of spinach tossed in a deeply flavorful, complex vinaigrette. It’s at once familiar yet a bit elevated, just like his restaurant. And none of the guests at your table will have to feign deliciousness for the sake of tradition. Prepare for sincere “oohs” and “aahs” instead.

Pecan Crusted Georgia Quail, Wilted Spinach & Maple Sherry Vinaigrette

½ cup sherry vinegar

2 tbsp. maple syrup

1 tsp. dijon mustard

¼ tsp. fish sauce

¼ tsp. soy sauce

2 tbsp. olive oil for vinaigrette

Salt and black pepper

1 cup roasted pecan pieces plus ¼ cup for garnish

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3 tbsp. olive oil for quail

1 egg beaten with 1 tsp. milk

4 ea semi boneless quail

6 cups fresh spinach, cleaned, stemmed and firmly packed

1 cup julienned red onions

  1. In a mixing bowl combine vinegar, maple syrup, mustard, fish sauce, soy sauce and olive oil for vinaigrette. Whisk together well until ingredients are fully incorporated. Dressing should appear broken, set aside.
  2. In a food processor, combine the pecans and 1/2 cup of the flour. Pulse until finely ground; be careful not to over process or the mixture will become a paste.
  3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  4. In a shallow bowl, season the remaining flour with salt and pepper. Season the egg wash and quail with salt and pepper.
  5. Dredge the entire quail in the seasoned flour. Then dip each piece in the egg wash, letting the excess egg wash drip off. Finally, dredge all in the pecan-flour mixture, coating the bird completely. Set aside.
  6. In a large sauté pan, heat enough olive oil to come 1/3-inch up the sides of the pan. When the oil is hot, lay each quail into the hot oil. Pan-fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes on each side.
  7. Remove the pan from the heat and transfer birds briefly to a paper towel-lined plate to blot any excess oil.
  8. Transfer quail to a small baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in the oven and cook the quail until heated through, 6 to 8 minutes.
  9. In a large mixing bowl, combine the spinach and red onions and toss with the vinaigrette as desired. Season with salt and pepper. Mound the greens in the center of 4 plates. Lay 1 quail on top of each serving of spinach. Garnish with remaining toasted pecans.


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