Nab and cook batches of garden snails with this practical guide on how to make escargot, and make your garden pests taste like the French gourmet item served in overpriced restaurants.
The French don’t consider the garden snail a nuisance at all, but a reason to spend time with the family, walking with buckets through their yards—even grassy fields—in pursuit of their prize. They refer to it as “hunting.”
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Growing edibles inevitably means growing snails, especially because our garden is organic and hospitable to wildlife. We have a big snail population snacking on our carefully tended leafy vegetables. One day Johanna, our test-garden coordinator, suggested that we eat them. Eat them? As in—escargots?
That was definitely the French approach to dealing with snails in the garden. In fact, the French don’t consider them a nuisance at all, but a reason to spend time with the family, walking with buckets through their yards—even grassy fields—in pursuit of their prize. They refer to it as “hunting.”
But were ours the type of snails that could be eaten? Maybe they produced toxins. And, most important, how would we make them taste like the French gourmet item served in overpriced restaurants?
First, we experimented with sautéing them, and discovered that preparing snails wasn’t as simple as tossing them around in butter in a frying pan. They were, er, slimy. So we did some research and consulted many authorities on the cooking of France, including M. F. K. Fisher and Georgeanne Brennan, and reread our own article on escargots, published in 1988. All advised pretty much the same technique for cooking snails, with slight variations: Purge the snails (put them on a cornmeal diet in a closed dish for several days to clear their innards of any noxious stuff they may have been nibbling), boil them, extract them from their shells, and then use them in whatever recipe you have in mind.
Having now nabbed and cooked several batches of snails, let’s just say that making escargots, though not difficult, is not for the squeamish. In fact, it reminds us of a sixth-grade science project. But the final outcome is delicious.
About 12 live snails. We plucked our little shelled nuisances from the garden. Choose the biggest snails possible. Unfortunately, we didn’t seem to have any big snails. Ours were all small to medium.
Bowl. For collecting snails.
Kitchen towel. To drape over the snail-collecting bowl, to keep your catch from crawling out.
Roasting pan. A large, rimmed pan, such as a 10-by- 14-inch roasting pan. About $10 at most cookware stores or online.
About 2 cups yellow cornmeal. For the purge. About $3 for 1 pound at most grocery stores.
Several thyme sprigs. For the purge.
2 tablespoons fine sea salt. For salting to remove slime, plus more for seasoning when sautéing.
Small bowl. For salting the snails.
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 small onion
2 celery stalks
1. Choose wisely. Determine the species of snail you have; not all are edible. The most popular snail in France is the big, fat Burgundy snail, Helix pomatia. Ours are common brown garden snails, Helix aspersa, also considered fine to eat. They were brought to this country, probably by the French, in the 1850s and are now a major pest in gardens everywhere. Make sure you hunt for snails in a garden free of pesticides. This isn’t a problem for us, as Sunset has had a no-spray policy for decades.
2. Collect. We found the majority of our snails on the inside rims of potted plants, mostly edibles but occasionally flowers, too. They tend to like plants that give shade in the afternoon heat, such as agapanthus, but they also like to hang out in whichever plant they are eating, especially radicchio, lettuce, kale, cabbage, and strawberries. Just pull them off and put them in a basket or bowl, covered with a towel, for transporting to the kitchen.
3. Wash. Since snails crawl around in dirt, you need to make sure they are really clean. Rinse them in a colander under cold running water while rubbing them together.
4. Purge. This controlled feeding of the snails ensures that their digestive tracts are clean of impurities, toxins, and dirt. Put the snails into the roasting pan with a small dish of fresh water, about 1/4 cup yellow cornmeal poured into the corner of the pan, and a few sprigs of thyme from the garden. Cover the pan with a double layer of cheesecloth secured around the edge of the pan with rubber bands or tied string. Every other day, take the snails out of the pan, wash the pan, return the snails to the pan, and replace the cornmeal, the bowl of water, and the thyme. Do this for about 2 weeks. You’ll know the purge is working when you see little yellow and green dried poop trails in the pan.
5. Salt. Put the snails in a small bowl and sprinkle them with the 2 tablespoons salt. This kills them and also helps to pull the slime from them. Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and poke a few holes in the foil. Let sit for about 12 hours.
Fill the bowl with water and then drain. Repeat as needed, rinsing off the salt and mucus each time, until the water runs clear.
6. Boil. In a large saucepan, bring 4 cups water and the 1/2 cup white wine to a boil. Add a few herb sprigs, such as thyme and flat-leaf parsley. Then chop the onion, carrot, and celery and add them to the pan. Simmer for 30 minutes to create a flavorful broth. Drop the snails into the broth and simmer them, skimming off any green, slimy foam that appears on the surface (this is the science-project part), until the meat releases easily from the shell when prodded with a toothpick, about 15 minutes (longer if you have larger snails). Lift the snails out with a slotted spoon, letting any slime and mucus drip off the spoon, and transfer to a plate. Then use the toothpick to pluck the snails from their shells. The standard instruction is to cut the tough “foot” off the snail. Our snails were so small that the cut was more like a scrape, but we did it anyway.
You can save the shells, dry them completely, and serve the cooked snails in them for a lovely presentation. Our shells were too small and not worth the trouble.
7. Cook: Garlic Butter Escargots. At this point, the snails can be used in any recipe you like (we’ve seen recipes for everything from baked escargots to spaghetti with escargots). We went the traditional French route and tossed them in a little garlic, parsley, lemon, white wine, and, of course, butter—lots of melted butter. We ate them in a little dish with a side of warm crusty bread and were instantly transported to a sidewalk cafe on the Champs-Élysées.
• The Food and Flavors of Haute Provence, by Georgeanne Brennan (Chronicle Books, 1997).
• “Fifty Million Snails,” from Serve It Forth, by M. F. K. Fisher (Harper & Brothers, 1937; reprinted by North Point Press, 1989).
• Snails as Food: Escargot by Robert Hawthorne (8-page pamphlet from the University of California, Davis; publication #2222; revised 1975)
• The Snail Eaters, a reminiscence by Joyce Hanson on Leite’s Culinaria.
Reprinted with permission from The One-Block Feast: An Adventure in Food from Yard to Table by Margo True & the staff of Sunset Magazine, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Buy this book from our store: The One-Block Feast.
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