Canned: $12.85 for 30 to 40 count can
Frozen: $24 per pound, with shipping
Fresh: $33 per pound
Canned: Rinse well and soak in clean water; for extra flavor cook sous vide with aromatic vegetable
Frozen: Pull from the freezer and gently cook
Fresh: Rinse, poach in court bouillon, and finish with light heat
The snail has a dual identity: slimy mollusk pest and luxurious butter-drenched delicacy. Stuck in the middle of this (largely American) identity crisis are the chefs who love les escargot and their diners, who might have snail-phobia. For snails to succeed on their menus, chefs have to find a way to showcase the protein at a price point diners are willing to pay and in combinations enticing enough to convert the skeptical. Recently, StarChefs.com tasted with three gastropod-obsessed chefs, all with different inspirations, budgets, and agendas for snail dishes. At the center of each composition was the source (a can, freezer, and overnight FedEx box), and ultimately, the flavor of the snail.
In the Canned Camp
Chef Mark Liberman of San Francisco's AQ rarely, if ever, uses canned ingredients—except for the canned Burgundian snails he incorporates into his dish of Pork Trotter, Snails, Spring Garlic Espuma, and Avocado Mousse. "I tried to find fresh snails, and there was only one guy [who] could do it for me [locally]," says Liberman. "The cost was just too high." He then taste-tested canned and frozen product and found the little tins won out for flavor and texture. That is, after the snails were washed, soaked, and cooked sous vide in a traditional tumble of aromatic vegetables. The slow sous vide bath enhances the snails' natural sweetness, tenderizes the protein, and erases any hint of metallic aftertaste.
In the hands of an accomplished chef, and with the proper counterpoints on the plate, the canned snails are an addictive marvel. For Liberman's dish, rich pork trotters and the amped-up snails mingle beneath green garlic espuma, and bright avocado mousse cuts through the proteins intensity. Not only is it one of his (and our) favorite menu items, it's one that's in sync with AQ's price point.
Freezing in Flavor
New Orleans Chef Chris DeBarr (who just left wild Green Goddess for his latest venture, Serendipty) sources snails from Mary's Garden through Vancouver purveyor Fresh & Wild. The foraged snails are plucked from the Oregon wilderness and purged on basil and other flavorful herbs, before taking a dip in court bouillon. DeBarr gets the snails frozen and ready to pop into his Creole ode to the mountain porridges of Abruzzo, where locals hunt for snails and herbs and serve them over polenta. "Mary's snails are the best I've ever had, and so we really wanted to give them a proper, but funky, fun time in our Louisiana kitchen," says DeBarr.
For his NOLA rendition, grits take the place of polenta, a handful of spicy Tasso starts the party, and crawfish (which grow abundantly in Abruzzo's rice fields but rarely get eaten) bring an extra hit of sweet, muddy flavor. It's a surprisingly delicate combination, where the herbal snails get caught up—but never lost—in the swirl.
When Cost Is No Issue
Frozen snails aren't an option for 2012 Atlanta Rising Star Chef David Carson of Bacchanalia. And price is no obstacle. "It doesn't matter what we pay as long as we're getting the best ingredients," he says. That means sourcing many of his ingredients from Owner and Chef Anne Quatrano's Summerland Farms. In the case of his snails, Carson purchases from the same forager as DeBarr, but has a special arrangement to get them in fresh through Mikuni Wild Harvest.
From the raw state, Carson cooks the snails in a traditional veggie-packed court bouillon before finishing them gently with parsley, garlic, lemon, and warm butter. Once cooked, the snails anchor an untraditional surf and turf of mostly wild goods—industrially farmed snails just wouldn't work within the context of this dish. Carson inventively combines snails with a briny sauce of phytoplankton, tuna belly, and oyster liquor, along with gremolata, wild garlic, and crispy "crackers" made from freezing and shaving cured pork. It's about game and shellfish, "about pairing something that grows on the earth with something native to the sea," he says.
No matter their different pairings or sources, Carson, Liberman, and DeBarr are taking lowly, earth-dwelling snails and turning them into unforgettable escargot masterpieces.