An old friend on a visit to New York recently expressed the wish to eat snails -- the classic French way, with garlic-parsley butter. My first thought was that we'd take him and his wife out to an old-fashioned restaurant that still served escargots sizzling in their shells, but when I asked around I found no place that looked very appealing. Cooking them at home seemed the best way to proceed, and, again, I asked around for a trustworthy source of plump and healthy live snails. No dice. I was told that shipping live snails is against Fish and Wildlife rules (for fear of invasive species taking over our back yards), but I've been unable to verify that. Anyway, I couldn't get my hands on any.
So I resorted to extra-large canned snails imported from France (though I wonder where the creatures were actually raised). As with, say, canned beans, these aren't something you want to pick out of the tin and pop into your mouth, though there'd be no ill effects: they want a bit of further flavoring and tenderizing to be really palatable. This means cooking with aromatics and flavorful liquid, either in a casserole in a slow oven or over very low heat (for, say, 60 to 90 minutes), or sous-vide, which is what I did. I vacuum-packed three 18-snail cans' worth of rinsed and dried snails with a couple of cloves of garlic, a few sprigs of parsley, some thyme and strips of lemon zest, plus salt, pepper and a spoonful of rich stock, then left them in a temperature-controlled water bath at 155 degrees F (68 C) for four hours. After quickly chilling in a bowl of ice water, I refrigerated the bag until needed, a couple of days later.
From the moment I decided to make our friend's escargot wish come true, I knew I wouldn't be fiddling around with shells or little one-snail ramekins. I knew rather that I'd be emulating - though not duplicating - a couple of snail dishes Jackie and I had eaten in London, both from restaurant kitchens run by the chef Ed Wilson. At Terroirs, Mr. Wilson served the shell-free snails on grilled bread with bacon and the expected flavors of parsley and garlic; at The Green Man and French Horn, about which I've blogged for Huffington Post Travel, he omitted the toast and bacon and served the snails with wild mushrooms in a vivid green parsley sauce. Both of these are sterling dishes and the perfect starting point for cooking snails at home.
My version was pretty simple (once the snails had been pre-cooked): for four eight-snail portions, I finely chopped a good-sized shallot and eight smallish but potent cloves of garlic, then sweated them in butter with a little salt until thoroughly tender. In a food processor I pureed a big bunch of flat-leaf parsley, its larger stems removed, and a little handful of dill (our friends are Russian and it seemed cruel not to use this herb, and I've also found that in small quantities it spikes the flavor of parsley), loosened with the juice of half a lemon and some vegetable stock (chicken stock would have been good too, and a drizzle of cream wouldn't hurt either). I then added the cooked garlic mixture and gave it a whirl in the food processor, then scraped this puree/sauce into a shallow pan large enough to hold 33 snails (32 to serve plus one to taste). I checked for seasoning and left it until it was time to serve.
For each plate, I cut a crust-free circle of sourdough bread less than half an inch thick (1cm) and roughly 4-1/2 inches (11.5cm) in diameter, the size determined by the little bowl I used as a template. I lightly brushed each with melted butter on both sides, set them on a sheet pan and lightly browned them in a 375-degree F (190 C) oven, turning once and making sure they didn't dry out and turn into melba toast. Meanwhile, I reheated the snails in the parsley sauce, checked for seasoning and stirred in two good tablespoons of butter, which added gloss and consistency.
One disc of toast went onto each plate, and eight snails and their sauce went onto each disc. First of all, this is so much easier for the diner than struggling with the butter-in-the-shell presentation, which is not an innate skill for most people, and it is no less fun. More important, it is a delicious and rather elegant dish: the bread for mopping up extra sauce is built in, and the balance is just right; the sauce-puree has all the expected flavors but avoids the sometimes greasy butter-overload of the traditional dish. It's more subtle, because of the abundant herbs and because the garlic and shallots have been tamed through cooking; that is a good thing because snails are not one of nature's flavor-bombs, and with this sauce you can actually taste them.
Now I need to find some live snails and do this dish properly. When I do, I'll gladly save the shells for anyone who's interested -- keep checking eBay.