10 February, 2010

On the Snail Trail

Snail Shells


Escargot de Conserve à la Bourguignonne

Mock snail of cœur de porc

Mock snail of champignons farcis

This story started with a resolution. Sometimes in honor of the New Year, I concoct some stand that may sound outrageous, but in reality is no big deal. Past resolutions included not going to McDonald's (kept that one for several years till I had kids), No Starbucks (I still don't buy drinks but it's the only nearby place to find a New York Times), and once I pledged to use butter on bread only when it had been freshly baked (that one was kinda hard, but helpful). This year I announced to my family that I would not cook with any ingredient that required the use of a can opener. My proclamation was met with a shrug. With the exception of coconut milk and occaisional can of frejoles, our household has led a mostly canless existence. It has been going in this direction since culinary school a few years ago. I remember when I started I thought, "I'm not going to school to learn how to use a can opener," and of course, the first thing we did was crack open #10 cans of tomato paste to make brown stock. Going canless led me to think about several things such as: What convienence does a canned good offer over technique, or what fresh ingredient could I use instead of an exotic canned one? My quest is not about vilifying metal containers or the processed products therein, I mean if I want to make something special that requires canned artichokes, I'm gonna go buy a can of artichokes. But can you name any dishes that are rooted in some great culinary tradition, that require a can opener? So far I have brown stock and green bean casserole.

Snail Tin

Before I made this grand and sweeping change in my life I thought about what would I miss: I learned how to make coconut milk from shredded coconut, and cooking dried beans is very easy (hint: you don't need to soak them overnight) so, I thought and I thought....


I had never bought a can snails, but I'd thought about it a lot ever since a Bistro class at Kendall. The instructor had been a chef at French place in Evanston and he said since snails are not cultivated here, the only way to get them was in a can from France. He had us liven up the canned gastropods by sautéing them in butter with a splash of white wine before stuffing them. The taste isn't particularly exotic, but its good, and reminds me of fun times in France.

Proper tools for the job


The last time I had snails was at Cafe Deguerre with my sister.

Eating Escargot

With these memories in mind, and the new knowlege of how easy it is to prepare snails, I was ready to buy a can.


Shopping for snails triggered another memory. As I held the prize in my hand, I remembered going to the grocery as a kid with my mom. Short of the lackluster toy aisle, this column of shells was the most interesting item in the store. Now back in modern time, staring at the cockles, I thought about my new resolution. For the sake of research I would make canned snails, but I had to come up with some alternatives.

Rinsing snails

Escargot de Conserve à la Bourguignonne

I'll thank Elizabeth David for the name, but I would hardly call my recipe an adaptation. Snails have been prepared in the Burgundy way for centuries. The Oxford Companion to Food reports that snails became a fixture of Brasseries in Paris due to the fact that most were run by Alsatians, who were big time snail eaters. I can't say I agree with this theory, I think the snail's popularity comes more from the preparation: Just about anything tastes good smothered in garlic and butter. Let's go to the boards:

Beurre à la Bourguignonne (Snail Butter) (for 1 dozen snails)

120g /4oz /8T /1 stick Unsalted Butter
10g /2tsp Shallot minced
5g /1 large clove garlic minced
15g /1T Parsley chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Softening butter

Soften the butter by beating it with a big stick or rolling pin. You don't really need the plastic.

Snail Butter

Stir in remaining ingredients till it looks uniform, set aside.

For the snails, sauté them in a little butter, put in a splash of white wine and reduce. Let them cool a bit before stuffing. With clean shells take about a teaspoon of prepared butter and stuff it in the shell. Use your pinky finger to push it in far, then gently shove in a snail. Seal the hatch with another knob of butter.

stuffing snail

Snail plate detail

Stuffed snail

I don't have a snail plate so I used a focaccia trimmed for the occasion.

Snail plate ready to heat

Pop into a hot oven and heat till the butter bubbles.

It's not too hard to reconstruct this French food memory at home, the can even had a pop top so I didn't have to use a can opener. The container had enough for two dozen snails.

For making mock snails,I didn't have to look much farther than my old copy of Larousse for an answer. Under the snail entry it gives a recipe for Mock Snails Comtesse Riguidi. It calls for lamb's sweetbreads and a chicken cream stuffing. Sweetbreads doesn't sound very snail like but fun. Now if I could only find some.

Pork Hearts $.69 /lb

I called around to a couple of places and they said I could special order sweetbreads, but where's the sport in that? I moved on. At the same time I had been thinking about some sort of meat that would be a little chewy (snail-like?) and would have taste great smothered in butter and garlic. I picked up some pork hearts.

Sautéed pork heart

I removed the chewy bits and cut up the heart into snail sized strips. With salt pepper and a dusting of flour I sautéed the strips in butter. I let them cool before stuffing. One heart is plenty for 12 snails.

Stuffing Pork Snail

Mock snails ready to heat

Pork Snail

I used a bamboo skewer as a snail fork.

Crimini Mushrooms for Snails

I also wanted to do something with mushrooms. I like the idea of mushrooms and snails coming from the same part of the forest, but how to make a mushroom look like a snail? I not much for sculpting with a knife so how about some sausage.

Piping snails

I combined all the ingredients in a food prcessor, blended to smooth then piped little snail shapes using a pastry bag with small tip. The mushroom snails baked in a 375F oven for 8-10 minutes.

Two piped halves

On the escargotière

Here are the quantities I used for 12 mushroom snails

120g /4oz Crimini mushrooms
20g Rolled oats ground fine in a spice mill
1 egg
2g salt
pinch of each and grind in the spice mill with the salt: Thyme, mustard seed, white pepper, 1 juniper berry.

Stuffing Mushroom Snail

Snails out of the oven

Mushroom Snail

Over the past couple of weeks my family has eaten a lot of snails, Ok I've eaten a lot of snails, everybody else has just wondered when I would move on. The boys liked the pork heart (served over spaghetti) and the mushroom stuffing is really easy to make. As for going canless, I don't think that will be too hard, I don't need to buy anymore snails. But write in tell me what you can't live without in the can!


Book References (links to WorldCat, a library database)

The Oxford Companion to Food by Davidson

Good Things by Grigson (nice discussion but too much salt in her snail butter)

Larousse Gastronomique by Montagné

French Provincial Cooking by David


Liz said...

OK, I have to know, how do you make it through the winter without resorting to canned tomatoes? Do you grow enough to jar your own? Or do you buy extra for jarring? (I guess jars don't count for the 'kick the can' campaign?) Or do you actually go without tomatoes in the winter months?

Dave said...

My crutch used to be beans, but I started tossing them on the stove and realized they cook pretty fast. I agree with Liz though, definitely need the tomatoes a la can. Oh, and sardines. I'm a big sardine fan lately.

The mushroom snails are pretty cool.

Andrew said...

I'm also curious about tomatoes. I can't deal with the "fresh" ones in the winter.

I also couldn't give up my lychees in a can either.

mac said...

Hi Liz:
Thanks for writing. I eat tomatoes almost everyday. Canned tomatoes can be a tough one, but I like using fresh plum tomatoes. I got into the habit of blistering them under a broiler à la Rick Bayless, then running them through a food mill. The past couple of years my tomato crops have not yielded enough for canning. There is nothing better than a fresh tomato from the garden, but when the season is done I go back to the plum tomatoes from the grocery, they are a workhorse in my house.

Sardines in the can, I loves me some preserved fish, and I can't think of anything that could fill that niche. Salmon is on sale this Saturday, so I'm planning to make gravlax.

Canned whole peeled tomatoes were a staple in my pantry for a very long time. At some point I started to not like the “cooked” flavor that I detected from canned tomatoes, and to that end I haven’t used them in a long time. I like plum tomatoes, they’re meaty, easy to work with and even the worst ones have a resonance of tomato flavor. I don’t know very much about lychees, what do you like to make with them?

Thanks again for writing.

Andrew said...

Mac-we just each canned lychees straight, like fruit cocktail, except with a cooler name. More and more stores are carrying "fresh" lychees, but they are pretty sad.

Chilebrown said...

Wow, I am impressed all over this post. Have never had snails so my opinion is moot. I think the faux would be more my style. I like the focacia serving platter.

I can send you buckets of California snails. I have read that you can purge the snails of any toxins by feeding them for a couple of days.