The Noble Snail
March 15, 2003

I'm going to preface this entry with a little nod to the world situation. Without getting too much into my personal rhetoric, I think it is absolutely ridiculous that people are shunning French-originated food because of Le President. It's almost as ridiculous, but not quite as scary, as someone being arrested in a mall for wearing a tee-shirt that expresses the sentiment that maybe, just maybe, mass murder isn't the way to go. First of all, French Fries aren't even French -- they're BELGIAN, and French Toast was invented by an AMERICAN named French! Ignorance breeds every kind of psychopath. Just this morning I heard on NPR that some woman was harassed for buying brie. HARASSED! For going about her own personal business! I ask you -- what the hell is our country coming to? Dad -- don't email me about this. Seriously.

We wouldn't be slamming the Italians, Irish, Polish, or Japanese if they were mounting any sort of serious opposition to war in Iraq. And why? Because all those nationalities have visible representatives in our population. If we attacked them the way we're attacking the French, we'd be accused of racism. However, because the French blended more into our melting pot, we seem to have clearance to slam the Frogs as much as we like.

All that aside, taking the culinary trail to France has been a gastronomic blast -- blastronomic, if you would. While I can't stand much of what we do in Classical French and Haute Cuisine -- all that forcemeat covered in squidgy white chaud-froid and aspic, which, if you ask me, just seem to me to be a glorified version of the good ol' midwestern party standby, the sandwich loaf -- I really do love my French Provincial class. Two weeks ago, we studied the Touraine-Anjou-Loire Valley-Orléans region, and I was coming off a high after doing some spectacularly artistic poached pears with intricate chocolate designs.


So, when we covered Burgundy last week, I dove straight into the familiar territory of an old Keckler Family favorite: Escargot.

I know what you're thinking. Considering that the garlicky midgets swim consistently in their butter and parsley every Christmas Eve for the past twenty-eight years in my family, it's not much of a challenge for me to prepare them in class -- right? But see, I was all about learning the "classic" way of making them. Plus, trusting the little suckers to a novice and having them come out all rubbery and tasteless? Uh-uh. Not on my watch. Plus, several of my classmates had never tried them before, and I felt it was my duty to make their first encounter snail-sational.

I was the tender age of four-ish when first I supped on the garden terrorizers. We were at our friends' house, the Delus, and they handed them around as if they were popcorn. Although I might turn up my nose at the plebe lima beans and carrots, I was obviously sophisticated enough to recognize good eating when it crawled across my plate.

I can't even begin to go into the elaborate process these gastropods must go through in order to make them edible -- suffice to say, over the course of several days, they are more fussed over than any piece of steak or chicken you will ever put in your mouth in the United States. They are immaculate and eminently safe to eat.

If they're done right, escargot have the consistency of a grilled portabello mushroom and should not require any jaw-zersize to get them down the gullet. Many people eat oysters, and I love them, but let's face it, they're about as chewable as those little dehydrated balls that collect on the side of a rubber cement jar. Perfect escargot should almost melt in your mouth. I checked over the class recipe and noted a few differences in how I've made them before. For one, our family recipe usually used scallions instead of shallots and black pepper instead of the more piquant and finely textured white pepper. Disregarding the fine mince in the recipe, Chef Passion showed me how to make a garlic paste with a few grains of salt and the tip of my knife. It releases much more garlic essence. I quickly pulverized ten cloves of garlic into a paste and added them to the chopped shallots, parsley, white pepper, and 3/4 cup softened butter. I then put the whole mess into the Robot-Coup and gave it a few whizzes and scrape-downs until it came together smoothly in a bright green paste. Because I had used so much salt in making the garlic paste, none was needed when I adjusted the seasoning. I called over Chef Passion's tongue to make sure no more futzing was necessary before I started stuffing the shells.

The classic way of baking escargot is to use a set of natural shells that can be washed and used over and over again. Last Christmas as I was practicing for my midterm practicum, I got good use out of some puff pastry dough by making Escargot in Puff Pastry Domes. Yet a third way to present the tasty morsels is to set them in mushroom caps -- preferably, Baby Bella or Cremini -- bake them with the compound butter, and pop the whole thing in your mouth without the aid of special pincers and forks. I like to call those "Escargots in Inner Tubes."

When using the natural shells, I put about a teaspoon of the chilled compound butter into the shell, follow it with the actual snail, and then top it off with another teaspoon of the compound butter. Leveling off the butter where it meets the shell ensures that more will melt down into the shell and baste the escargot than will dribble out into the baking dish.

The school recipe directions only had me baking the filled shells at 350 degrees until the butter melted. I changed that slightly and baked them at 375 degrees on the lower rack for about twenty-five minutes. They came out piping hot and bubbling redolently of garlic and parsley.


About two or three people still refused to eat them but everyone else sampled and loved them. Chef Passion actually went into paroxysms of delight as she proclaimed that in no restaurant or kitchen (including her own) had she ever tasted escargot so perfectly seasoned and tender. As you may guess, she's taking in a lot of territory with that statement. After emptying four shells, she whispered that I certainly got 100 in lab that day and that is a damn hard thing to get.

I beamed with butter and pride for the rest of the week.

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