Baked snails–escargots, as the French call them–is not a dish that many children outside of France recall from their childhood. For my brother and I, escargots conjure up memories of elegant dining rooms with heavy silverware and courteous waiters. Although they were hard-working, middle-class immigrants, my parents liked the good life. They traveled, made their own wine, ate in fine restaurants–and saw no reason to exclude their children from any of that. For this I am forever grateful. Their attitude has had a large part in shaping who I am in a positive way.
As a kid, I always had very firm ideas about what I liked to eat; although I was not as adventurous as my younger brother, I was always willing to try new things. I vividly remember tasting my first escargot, slightly squeamish at first, but ultimately reveling in the strange and unfamiliar texture and the intense flavor of the hot butter and crushed garlic. I would eat the sole of a shoe if it were browned in butter.
Still, I always had trouble connecting escargots to the snails that crawled along the underbrush of lettuce in our garden, much in the way many people fail to connect the perfectly packaged meat in the supermarket to animals in slaughterhouses. Some people can do this really well and become vegetarians. Others, like myself, remain unrepentant carnivores.
Then my mother told me how she had made escargots for our family while she was in Serbia. I was dumbfounded . “But where did you get the snails?” I asked her. I couldn’t imagine you could find cans of snails in Serbian supermarkets. Back then it was difficult to even find feta cheese.
My mother laughed. “Well, the garden, of course.”
“Good thing you didn’t poison anyone,” I said, feeling sick to my stomach. But at least now I got it.
Making snails edible is a lot of work. You have to purge them of toxins, clean them, simmer them, and extract the snails from their shells before you can eat them. No wonder most people buy them already prepared–and still in those attractive shells. For less than a couple of dollars, though, you can buy canned escargots the world over. Rinse them and they’re ready to sauté with parsley and garlic butter. When I confess that I sometimes make escargots for lunch, people look at my as though I’m a lunatic. Or at least extremely self-indulgent. I won’t argue with the latter. But making escargots doesn’t have to take any longer than putting together a sandwich, and eating them can be a lot more exciting.
This recipe is from The Country Cooking of France by Anne Willan, my favorite French cookbooks of late. Anne has a whole chapter on snails and frog legs in this beautiful book, and even a write-up on how to catch and prepare your own snails for hard-core escargot enthusiasts.
Escargots à la Bourguignonne
one 14-ounce/390-g can large or medium snails
2 or more garlic cloves, to taste
1 cup/250-g butter, softened
3 tablespoons/45-ml cognac
salt and pepper
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1) Preheat oven to 425F/220C. Drain and thoroughly rinse the snails. To make the compound butter, combine the shallot and garlic in a food processor or chopper and pulse to chop coarsely. Add the butter and pulse until blended.
2) Work in the cognac, salt, pepper, and then the parsley. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If more garlic is desired, mince it first so it mixes into the compound butter evenly.
3) Add a small dollop of butter to each section of escargots baking dishes. Set the snails over the butter and finish with more butter. Bake until very hot and bubbly, about 5-10 minutes. * The broiler may be turned on for the last few minutes for extra browning.
4) Serve immediately alongside slices of fresh or lightly toasted French baguette.
*Be sure not to overcook or they will become very tough.