Grilling Quail with a Forensic-Psychologist-Turned-Chef
All photos by Liz Seabrook.


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Grilling Quail with a Forensic-Psychologist-Turned-Chef

At Morito, the new East London outpost of famed Exmouth Market tapas restaurant Moro, head chef (and former forensic psychologist) Marianna Leivaditaki grills quail over charcoal before dressing with pomegranate molasses and Lebanese pistachios.

11.37 AM is a perfectly acceptable lunchtime.

This we know to be true. But it is particularly true when you've just spent the previous half an hour watching Marianna Leivaditaki slice, pummel, squeeze, and roast a collection of ingredients so delicious that you fear your stomach may actually have pickled itself in anticipation.

Marianna Leivaditaki is the head chef at the new outpost of Morito on Hackney Road in East London. For those of you who've been eating under a blood orange for the last few years, Morito is the tapas small plate spin-off of Moro on Exmouth Market, a Spanish and North African restaurant opened by name-matched husband-and-wife team Sam and Sam Clark in 1997. The restaurant soon became known as much for its sourcing of ingredients as its dishes. There were apricots from Syria, pistachios from Lebanon, and wine from Southern Spain.


Morito head chef Marianna Leivaditaki. All photos by Liz Seabrook.

At the new Morito, thanks to Leivaditaki's connections back where she grew up, there are also mountain teas from Crete, thyme honey, and delicious fish.

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But I am here to learn how to make Morito's quail: a dish that can be conjured just as easily on a home barbecue—so long as you're not living in a third-floor flat and trying to light a disposable grill in your window boxes. The marinade can also be used on all sorts of game.

"I don't eat meat very often so, when I do, I want it to be very meaty," says Leivaditaki, as she snips the quails off from the knee-down, her small hands terrifically strong, her huge eyes blinking. "Quail isn't as scary as a game bird, but it cooks like a tame bird."

Suddenly the lyrics to "Shy Guy" pop into my head.


Quail with marinade, ready to grill.

Leivaditaki serves the quail with a pistachio dressing that's halfway between a pesto and a sauce: bright green, oily, and thicker than a primary school bully. It's made with Gaziantep pistachios (longer than the average nut and Granny Smith-green) but the secret is the marinade, which we start to assemble on the low marble pass that keeps the Morito kitchen separate, but very much included, in the restaurant. This marinade is a mix of pomegranate molasses, garlic, salt, dried mint, cinnamon, and a baharat Turkish spice mix that includes clove, coriander, and cumin.

Leivaditaki starts opening the pomegranate by sliding the knife just around the edge of the fruit, then pulling it open, so as not to crush the seeds. She then thumbs them out into a bowl—the little pink seeds dropping like jewellery—to which she adds some garlic, a healthy drizzle of pomegranate molasses, a good pinch of baharat, a chunk of dried mint, and some cinnamon. The whole thing is then covered with a long pour of olive oil out of a small blue ceramic teapot.


Leivaditaki covers the quail with olive oil.

As she works, Leivaditaki tells me that her father was a fisherman and used to run a restaurant in Crete. She would join him to collect sea salt from the rocks and ravines around the island.

Clearly, her love of food, ingredients, and feeding comes from those early years in the family restaurant—staying up all night peeling potatoes, scaling fish, and standing on a box so as to reach the kitchen counter. She may have had a little detour into a psychology degree and job as a forensic psychologist, but watching her squeeze, pinch, sniff, and pour behind Morito's big marble top, Leivaditaki seems incredibly at home.

With the marinade prepared, Leivaditaki rubs it all over the quail like suntan lotion into a lover's buttocks and leaves it—ideally for 12 hours. At Morito, they may serve as many as 50 or 60 of these in a day, so there's always a fairly healthy stock getting their marinade treatment in the fridge. While the quail loll, gaudy on a patterned plate, at least one of them with its legs crossed like a Playboy centrefold, it's time to make the pistachio sauce.


Gaziantep pistachios.

These pistachios were acquired by Morito from Lebanon via a sort of I-know-a-man-who-knows-a-man deal, but us mere mortals can just use regular pistachios. Leivaditaki gets out a giant mortar and dildo-like pestle that must be at least a foot long. With this, she grinds a couple of garlic cloves until they go nearly clear, before adding a handful of emerald-like pistachios, crunching them up into a rough paste under that giant stone phallus. She adds a sprinkle of salt and a few dribbles of orange blossom water—a smell I absolutely adore but that Leivaditaki says reminds her of wrinkly old grandmas. Guilty as charged.


The whole thing is almost indecently green and shiny, smelling like all sorts of orchard.


Leivaditaki adds the marinade to the quail.

Talking of trees, apparently Leivaditaki and her brother used to climb pomegranate trees like wild monkeys, pull down the fruit, and eat their contents out of a bowl until their stomachs swelled like drums. Or they'd lean out of their bedroom window and thwack the neighbours' almond tree before scuttling around to pick up the nuts. This is the stuff of which food-lovers are made. Not to mention ASBOs.

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The final part of the puzzle is the pomegranate dressing, which Leivaditaki whips up as the quail cook on a charcoal grill. They love a bit of charcoal at Morito—hell, who doesn't love meat cooked on charcoal? When she was pregnant, a mother I know once picked up a piece of cold charcoal from a family barbecue and licked it like a cow.


Grilled quail with pomegranate molasses and pistachio dressing.

The dressing is simple: Leivaditaki squeezes two halves of another pomegranate over a large bowl, the juice trickling through her hands. To this, she adds more pomegranate molasses, a pinch of dry mint, salt, and olive oil and whisks it with a fork. She then dunks the cooked quail right into the bowl to dress it, adds a little chopped fresh mint, and swooshes the whole thing round like a whisky glass.

All of this is served on a small blue plate alongside a flatbread covered in buffalo butter and another spice mix. Watching Leivaditaki roll out the bread sends me into a sort of trance—the sunshine at the window, the smell of cooking meat, the sparkle of the pistachio sauce, and Leivaditaki's easy chatter transport me away from Hackney to a sun-dazzled hillside far, far away.

Forget bangers and brown sauce, this year, my summer barbecues are going to be made up of pomegranate and mint.

All photos by Liz Seabrook.