Hugo Ortega’s Sweet-and-Savory Stuffed Quail Feast for Thanksgiving

Fitting for this year’s smaller celebrations, the Houston-based chef’s recipe is served with butternut squash puree and a Oaxacan-style pomegranate mole. Pair it with a Zinfandel blend or other bold red

Hugo Ortega’s Sweet-and-Savory Stuffed Quail Feast for Thanksgiving
Hugo Ortega's Thanksgiving quail is stuffed with ingredients that lend warm, festive flavors, like apples, plantains and ground clove. (Paula Murphy)
Nov 17, 2020

Chef Hugo Ortega’s origin story goes above and beyond the classic American dream. Born in Mexico City, Ortega moved to Houston in 1984 at age 17 with little money, virtually no resources and a substantial language barrier. He hustled his way to a job as a dishwasher at Backstreet Cafe, a recently opened spot for low-key American fare owned by Tracy Vaught.

Working with what he did have—a love of cooking, ingrained in him from childhood—Ortega earned a position as a line cook at the restaurant. “Our culture is about cooking and working the land, and celebrating life in a very personal way,” he says of the source of his passion. He went on to graduate from culinary school and continued to climb the kitchen’s hierarchy.

Fast-forward about three decades, and 55-year-old Ortega is now executive chef of Backstreet Cafe and co-owner with Vaught, who is now also his wife. The duo have evolved the restaurant into a renowned seasonal American bistro with a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence–winning wine list, and that’s only one piece of their H Town Restaurant Group. In addition to Origen in Oaxaca, their Houston culinary empire includes Xochi, inspired by the indigenous flavors of the Mexican city; the seafood-focused Caracol, and an upscale spot in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood called Hugo's. Ortega says opening his eponymous restaurant marked a major “turning point” in his life, giving him the chance to feature deeply personal cuisine, an idea he credits to Vaught.

“She surprised me by asking, ‘What about if you cook your home cooking?’” Ortega recalls. “That was overwhelming at the time, but it eventually shaped into being where we are today … and I can’t thank Houstonians enough and people abroad who have supported us through so many years.”

Husband-and-wife restaurateurs Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught
Husband-and-wife Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught first crossed paths at Backstreet Cafe, a restaurant they now own together. (Paula Murphy)

Ortega and Vaught’s 23-year-old daughter, Sofia, is now part of the family business too, after earning her undergraduate degree at Tulane University in New Orleans and a graduate degree in hospitality management from the University of Houston. “I could not be happier for our Sofia to believe in what we do,” Ortega says. “And we see her every day, so that makes it perfect.”

Ortega is a big fan of occasions centered around quality time with family. “Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year,” he says, though he uses the day to take a break from his typical kitchen duties. “I let Tracy do the cooking and I just wash the dishes and assist, and that makes a good team.”

The dish Ortega shares for this year’s celebrations lends itself to teamwork, with multiple components that come together for a feast that’s worth the effort: Bacon-wrapped quail stuffed with a filling studded with fruits like plantain, apples, apricot and raisins, served with a butternut squash puree and a pomegranate mole.

While mole is often associated with using cocoa as an ingredient in a savory application, there are actually numerous variations of this traditional sauce, though it’s reliably rich, complex and made with blended chiles. This Mexican cooking staple is close to Ortega’s heart, as it’s one of the dishes he learned during while living with his grandmother for three years in Oaxaca as a child. “That changed my life forever,” he says.

He puts his own spin on the sauce by incorporating pomegranate into the recipe here, one of several fruit-infused, seasonal moles he has been playing around with over the past five years. This past summer, for example, he experimented with a mole with mango, and another with pineapple. He says pomegranate is the right fit for fall, and for this particular dish. “It just goes wonderful with quail … and the recipe feels very seasonal,” he says. “Pomegranates have a very, I would say, silky and sweet-and-sour flavor, and then with the spices and the peppers, it really went nicely, but didn’t overpower the small bird.”

This recipe yields six appetizer portions to serve pre-turkey. But Ortega notes that two quail per person are enough for an entrée, so the recipe can easily be doubled or work as-is for a group of three—a timely alternative to a whole turkey, since many families will likely experience a downsized version of Thanksgiving dinner this year.

The first step is grinding all of the necessary spices and setting them aside to use later. Though you may be tempted to save time by buying them pre-ground, Ortega strongly advises against that. “When you grind your own peppercorn or spices, the oils and fragrance are there, so personally I think it’s a must,” he says. “Forget, for a little bit, about the spices you’ve had in your cabinet for a while, and do something fresh.”

It takes a certain amount of spices for the grinder to run smoothly, so you’ll wind up with more than the recipes require. But as Ortega points out, there are endless possibilities for putting that excess to use, from rubbing onto other poultry to sprinkling onto vegetables. “You can do pheasant, or you can do Cornish hen or turkey with it … and Tracy mentioned sweet potatoes.”

To go with the bold, spice-kicked flavors here, H Town Restaurant Group beverage director Sean Beck pulls a wine that’s just as bold: Tres Sabores ¿Porqué No? Napa Valley 2018, a lush, Zinfandel-dominant red blended with Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. “It delivers the flavor and texture needed to work well with the depth of Mexico's legendary mole,” Beck told Wine Spectator. “The juicy red fruit and hints of chocolate and brambly spice do well with the smoke of the bacon-wrapped quail. The pure, fleshy fruit vibes with the sweet, baked spice notes of the butternut squash and the perfume of the pomegranate mole.”

Vaught echoes this idea, adding that Zinfandel is the right grape to showcase for this pairing since it’s “packed with fruit and gives you a real zap.”

While California is highlighted on their restaurants’ wine lists, Vaught and Ortega have also long been champions of Mexican wines, which they note have increased in both availability and quality. “We opened Hugo’s 19 years ago, and we were one of the few restaurants here in Houston that started a wine program with Mexican wines,” Ortega says. “Years later, we still have our program, and it’s stronger than ever … it’s wonderful to give Mexican wine the attention it deserves.”

Below, Wine Spectator shares eight more full-flavored wines from regions around the world—including Argentina, Chile and Italy—to pair with Ortega’s quail and add some international flair to the all-American holiday.

Bacon-Wrapped Stuffed Quail with Butternut Squash Puree and Pomegranate Mole

For preparing the spices:

  • 1 large piece of cinnamon
  • 4 star anise
  • 6 cloves
  • 6 or 8 allspice berries

Separately for each spice, grind in a spice or coffee grinder. Set aside to use specified amounts of individual ground spices in the recipes for the stuffing, mole and squash puree. You won’t use it all, but you need a minimum amount to actually grind them.

For the stuffing:

  • 1 tablespoon corn oil (or any neutral oil)
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 1/2 cups canned diced roasted tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons sweet vermouth
  • 1 tablespoon chopped raisins
  • 1 tablespoon chopped dried apricot
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped red apple, skin on (from about 1/2 apple)
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped green apple, skin on (from about 1/2 apple)
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped crab apple, skin on (from about 1 apple), or any tart apple (keep in mind a crab apple is about half the size of a standard one)
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped Bosc pear, skin on (from about 1/2 pear)
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped ripe plantain (from about 1/2 plantain)
  • 1 tablespoon sliced almonds, toasted
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Pinch ground star anise
  • Pinch ground cloves
  • Pinch ground allspice
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1. Heat oil in sauté pan over medium heat. Add onions and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes. Add tomato and deglaze the pan for 2 minutes, then add sweet vermouth.

2. Add chopped raisins and apricot and let cook until 3/4 of the liquid has been reduced, 5 to 7 minutes, then add chopped apples and pear and cook for 5 minutes.

3. Add plantain, almonds and spices and stir. Add sugar and cook for 8 minutes, stirring constantly until the fruit absorbs the liquid. The fruit should be cooked but not mushy.

4. Remove from heat and cool down in the pot for at least 10 minutes until at room temperature.

For the quail:

  • 6 quail, boneless breast, wings and leg bones attached
  • Ground black pepper
  • Sea salt
  • 6 slices bacon

1. Preheat a conventional oven to 350° F. Pat quail dry and season with fresh ground pepper and a pinch of sea salt, then wrap each with a slice of bacon and secure with toothpick.

2. Divide the stuffing into 6 equal parts and stuff the quail, reserving 4 ounces of the filling for garnish.

3. Sear the quail in a large pan—working in batches if needed—on low heat for 3 minutes, then flip them and sear for another 3 to 4 minutes until they reach a golden-brown color. The goal is for the bacon to render but not burn.

4. Transfer quail to a baking rack and cook in the oven for 37 to 40 minutes.

For the pomegranate mole:

  • 3 tablespoons corn oil, divided
  • 11 whole garlic cloves
  • 1 purple onion, diced
  • 3 cups pomegranate seeds
  • Pinch ground star anise
  • Pinch allspice
  • Pinch clove
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds
  • 1/4 cup sliced raw almonds
  • 2 dried guajillo peppers, or substitute pasilla or puya peppers
  • 6 cups pomegranate juice

1. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large pot over medium heat, stir in garlic and onion and cook about 5 minutes, until soft, then add pomegranate seeds and stir for 4 more minutes.

2. Add ground spices, raisins, sesame seeds and almonds. Stir for 2 minutes, then add the guajillo peppers and pomegranate juice and cook for 10 minutes.

3. Pour carefully into blender and blend thoroughly to a smooth texture, then pass through a strainer to remove the seeds.

4. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in shallow pan over medium heat, pour in the sauce and “fry” the mole for 5 to 7 minutes and set aside.

For the butternut squash puree:

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • Pinch ground cloves
  • Pinch ground star anise
  • 3 butternut squash, seeded, halved and roasted in a 300° F oven for 1 hour
  • 1 tablespoon honey

1. Place butter and spices in a saucepan and melt together over medium heat for 3 minutes.

2. Scoop the roasted butternut squash out of the skin and into a blender. Add melted butter and puree together until smooth. Add the honey and briefly blend again to combine.

To serve:

1. Place a smear of butternut squash puree on the serving plate.

2. Place a stuffed quail on the puree.

3. Pour a few ounces of mole over the quail. Garnish with a few bits of the stuffing strewn about and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds. Serves 6 appetizer portions, or 3 as a main course.

8 Bold Red Wines

Note: The following list is a selection of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More options can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.


Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2018

Score: 92 | $28

WS review:A zesty and plump red, with wild berry, toasted sage and cracked pepper flavors that build layers toward polished tannins. Drink now through 2027. 1,200 cases made. From California.—Tim Fish


Cabernet Sauvignon Paraje Altamira Zaha Toko Vineyard 2017

Score: 91 | $30

WS review: Big and ripe, with unctuous dark fruit, blueberry and Asian spice flavors that offer creamy accents. Dark chocolate and mocha notes fill the finish to the brim. Drink now through 2025. 1,000 cases made. From Argentina.—Kim Marcus


Zinfandel Howell Mountain Cedarman 2017

Score: 91 | $32

WS review: Densely structured, with a polished exterior, offering deep blackberry, bitter chocolate and licorice flavors that expand toward broad-shouldered tannins. Drink now through 2029. 1,204 cases made. From California.—T.F.


Zinfandel California Old Vine 2018

Score: 90 | $25

WS review: Plump and zesty, with lively raspberry and smoked pepper flavors that speed toward lively tannins. Drink now through 2024. 4,000 cases made. From California.—T.F.


Primitivo di Manduria Altemura 2016

Score: 90 | $30

WS review: A harmonious red, sweetly juicy but still fresh and focused, with savory accents of smoke, toast and dried rosemary playing off the fruit flavors of raspberry preserves, black cherry coulis and spiced orange peel. Medium- to full-bodied, showing lightly chewy tannins on the finish. Drink now through 2026. 7,500 cases made. From Italy.—Alison Napjus


Primus The Blend Apalta 2016

Score: 89 | $19

WS review:Roasted dark fruit and Asian spice flavors bear hints of bacon fat in this red, which turns plump midpalate, with a finish redolent of dark chocolate and mocha. Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. Drink now through 2023. 30,000 cases made. From Chile.—K.M.


Cabernet Sauvignon Marchigue Serie Riberas Gran Reserva 2018

Score: 88 | $17

WS review: Big and fleshy, with inky and black tar accents to the dark cherry and roasted plum flavors. Chocolate and dried thyme notes show on the ripe finish. Drink now through 2023. 66,600 cases made. From Chile.—K.M.


Cabernet Sauvignon Napa County Educated Guess 2017

Score: 88 | $25

WS review: What you see is what you get in this warm, lush-feeling red, defined by a caressing wave of cassis and plum sauce flavors, backed by milk chocolate and melted licorice notes on the finish. Drink now through 2020. 75,487 cases made. From California.—J.M.

Recipes Cooking Holidays / Celebrations Thanksgiving

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