It was our last Go Cooking evening in December and Chef Tim Doan from Lo Presti’s at Maxwell’s had served an appetizer called Burgundy Escargot Crêpes. The dish included snails wrapped in lacy, thin crêpes with a very rich and delicious sauce that allied cream with Pernod. I am happy to report that not one of our 24 adventurous guests left the tasty morsels uneaten on their plates.
The experience did make me think of the first time I had ever tried snails, a time when eating something exotic and unusual seemed like one of life’s incredible adventures. It was in Paris, of course, and I was a teenager. My parents had sent me (allowed me to go?) for a semester, to brush up on my accent (futile, futile …), and I had immediately made friends with a group of American students so that I wouldn’t ever have to bother trying to speak French. Everyone was attempting to appear worldly and ever-so-sophisticated, and so, we decided to go out for escargots.
My only previous encounter with snails had occurred when gazing at a friend’s aquarium where I would watch them slither along, stuck to the glass side, oozing long trails of slime. Not surprisingly, I was dubious about the thought of actually ingesting one of the creatures. Everyone assured me, however, that the snails in restaurants were not the same as aquarium snails and I tried not to think about it too much.
The snails duly arrived at our table stuffed into cute little striped shells. Each person was supplied with tongs, to hold the hot shells, and tiny two-pronged forks (oyster forks?) to pull the critters out of the shells. The process was to dig them out and then eat the whole thing in a single bite. Since they smelled beautiful — completely doused in butter and garlic sauce — they tasted fine. (Well, if you like butter and garlic, of course.) I was so worried that I was going to make a complete fool of myself in front of the smirking French guests and disdainful wait staff that I ate the snails so fast that all I really could taste was sauce. My anxieties about using the tongs and fork properly were not entirely unbidden, as I realized many years later, when I watched Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman send a slippery shell flying across the room. The escargots were served with wonderful French bread and the best part of the meal, actually, was slurping up the sauce with the bread afterword.
Food prejudices are so completely illogical and so firmly rooted in childhood experience that they are very hard to conquer. I do like to watch Anthony Bourdain on CNN and am always amazed to see him munching on everything from insect larvae to snake meat to sheep’s brains. I do know that if I were starving to death, I would devour anything that crept, swam, flew or crawled. I also know that there are some things I would never willingly welcome on my dinner plate: For instance, ever heard of a specialty called Casu Marzu? A delicacy from Sardinia, a type of maggot-filled cheese — if you need more information about this little snack, check out
Nor would I ever knowingly eat dog or cat — certainly a cultural prejudice; Or something called lutefisk, which is a type of dried Scandinavian whitefish that is soaked in lye (Oy!! And yes, I realize that this is how vegans must feel about rare roast beef.). Then there is that old saying about oysters: “The bravest person in the world was the first person to ever eat an oyster.” But, strangely enough, I can’t relate to this at all. My dad loved oysters, we always had them at home for Christmas, you see, and I never thought twice about slurping down the cold, briney creatures on the half shell with squirts of lemon.
Anyway, perhaps one of the reasons why escargots are not eaten more widely is the tedious preparation that is required. All instructions insist that they must be purged and cleaned and boiled and the whole process can take several days. In fact, in a couple of recipes I’ve come across, the writer suggests first feeding the snails lettuce for a few days to plump them up. (I suppose they don’t like ice cream or hot buttered toast.) A friend of mine actually bought some live snails at a market to cook. She left them in the sink overnight, sprinkled with salt ,which is supposed to make them purge themselves. In the morning, she told me, she came into the kitchen and they had crawled laboriously out of the sink and were all over the counter trying to escape. My tender-hearted friend gathered them together and took them outside to her garden where she let them go.
Fortunately you don’t have to go through all of that rigmarole, as escargots now come in cans, completely cleaned and cooked. That is the kind that our chef used for the crêpes. He advised us to choose only the very best (the cheap ones may be gritty) and that the snails from the Burgundy region in France were the most tender and delicious. So here is his recipe — this would make an unforgettable buffet dish for a holiday party.
Burgundy Escargot Crêpes
from Chef Tim Doan, Lo Presti’s at Maxwell’s
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp. butter, melted
1) In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and the eggs. Gradually add in the milk and water, stirring to combine. Add the salt and butter; beat until smooth.
2) Heat a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium high heat. Pour or scoop the batter onto the griddle, using approximately 1/4 cup for each crêpe. Tilt the pan with a circular motion so that the batter coats the surface evenly.
3) Cook the crêpe for about 2 minutes, until the bottom is light brown. Loosen with a spatula, turn and cook the other side. Serve hot. Makes about 8 crêpes.
Sauce and Filling
3/4 cup 35 % heavy cream
2 oz Pernod
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp. diced onion
2 tsp. butter
1) Sauté the onions in butter in a pan.
2) Add escargots, sauté for one minute and add Pernod to flambé.
3) Add cream and reduce until only 1/3 is left, add salt and pepper to taste.
4) Spoon out escargots onto crêpes. Fold crêpes into triangles around the escargots. Drizzle with remaining sauce and serve.
Cooking and neatly folding the crêpes takes a bit of practice — you might want to try it for the family at first. You can keep these warm in a chafing dish for quite a while without undue deterioration, so they are great for parties.