For many diners, it's hard to bridge the gap between a savory dish of escargot at the restaurant and the creepy, crawly snails infesting the garden at home. Yet, they're essentially the same creature. A sort of dry-land shellfish, snails have a long history as one of the smallest and easiest to catch forms of "wild game." Canned snails are readily available at most shops, but foraging for your own provides an interesting experiment.
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Fresh From the Garden
The common brown snail you'll see in your garden is one of the two consumed avidly in France. Collect them in the evening or at dawn, picking them from your plants and sheltered areas under rocks or planks. Wash the snails under cold running water -- it won't hurt them -- and put them in a pan or bucket. Line the bottom with flour or cornmeal, and give them a saucer of water to drink. Cover the top tightly with wire mesh or cheesecloth, to keep your appetizer from escaping. Transfer the snails to a clean pail every other day. If you only have one, clean it scrupulously and then return the snails to it afterwards. They'll need to live in this clean habitat for 10 to 14 days, to purge their digestive systems of any toxins. Feed them bran, cornmeal or lettuce until the last two to three days, when they should fast.
Once your snails are purged and plump, the preparation process can begin. Place them in a mixing bowl and cover them with cold water. Add a few tablespoons of salt and a splash of vinegar, which kill the snails and strip away their protective layer of mucus. Soak the snails for 4 to 8 hours, or change the brine every 30 minutes for 2 hours. Rinse the snails well, under cold running water. Simmer the snails for 12 to 15 minutes, until they're loose in their shells. Drain them, and use a toothpick or cocktail fork to remove them from their shells. Trim away the soft, dark "foot" from the tip of each snail. Boil water, white wine vinegar, peppercorns, onions and herbs to make a flavorful "court-bouillon." Strain out the flavorings, then simmer the snails for 30 minutes -- for a slightly chew texture -- or up to three hours, until tender.
The Classic Preparation
At this stage your backyard snails are the equivalent of the canned kind -- though smaller -- and are ready to use. The classic preparation method, known to chefs as escargots "a la Bourguignonne," or snails Burgundy-style, requires butter beaten well with shallots, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper, and a splash of dry white wine. Spoon this butter into your escargot shells, than add a snail or two and top with more butter. Alternatively, kitchen stores sell baking dishes with six small cups for making escargot or stuffed mushrooms. Fill these depressions with butter and snails. Broil the snails until the butter steams and bubbles, and serve with slices of crusty baguette.
Other Traditional Recipes
That sizzling appetizer is the most familiar escargot dish, but others are equally good. The French sometimes stuff the shells with strong cheese, instead of garlic butter, as a complement to the snails. They're also good when paired with sauteed mushrooms and a wine-based sauce. For a heartier meal, use snails instead of clams in your favorite red or white pasta sauce. Snails -- not colorful seafood -- are also a signature ingredient in the oldest and most authentic recipes for Spanish paella. The dish traditionally uses ingredients such as snails and rabbit, which vineyard workers could forage as they carried out their duties.