If you are looking to expand your palate slowly, think snails. There are many kinds of land and sea snails and all over the world, for millennia, we humans have consumed them. But here in the Lowcountry, we focus on the sea variety and don’t often think much of the land variety as there is not a native edible snail here.
So I often hear when I order them, “Ew, I could never eat snails.” I usually decline to mention that my dinner companion probably does eat conch fritters, though, and that is a big sea snail cut up into bits and mixed into a hushpuppy of sorts. Sometimes people don’t want to hear food writer knowledge, and so I just quietly think, “more escargot for me.”
Although you won’t find escargot on many Lowcountry menus, they are available on a few, and all that I tracked in commercial kitchens arrived cooked and canned from France at a hefty price. They are then incorporated into traditional escargot, essentially a vehicle for copious amounts of butter and garlic, or otherwise folded into dishes usually including some kind of fat, which lends some moisture and injects more flavor.
So, your assignment if you choose it is to try a taste of this traditional delicacy and educate your tastebuds. Here are two places for traditional preparations, one innovative dish to try, and then if you are really feeling adventurous, some options for cooking at home.
The traditional appetizer
Rue de Jean
A Lowcountry standby for years, “Rue” is a classic French bistro, so it makes sense to see classic escargot on the menu. The kitchen first soaks the snails in buttermilk to tenderize, then they are sauteed in brandy, white wine, butter, and garlic and served in a traditional escargot cast-iron pan (that’s right, this dish is so beloved it has its own traditional pan). A sprinkle of parsley is the garnish, and bread comes for dipping.
Another French bistro, this one with more Lowcountry farm focus, Fat Hen’s escargot takes garlic to another level by serving the snails sauteed in brandy and white wine, finished with a garlic and herb compound butter, then served with grilled garlic bread. Probably not advised for a first date, but otherwise an exceptional choice.
The innovative dish
Chef Craig Deihl is using snails in a variety of preparations this season as he loves to pair them with fresh spring flavors for something different. He’s already flavored them with Thai basil for an appetizer that sold out last week, and he plans to pair them with chicken for a hearty main dish, but at the moment escargot are showing up in his “peas and carrots” dish with morel mushrooms, rice middlins, garlic, butter, and of course, peas and carrots.
Try your hand at home
Source online and home saute
Post and Courier contributor and cookbook author Nathalie Dupree is very comfortable cooking escargot, and she advises that the traditional version of garlic, white wine, and butter saute or bake is so traditional, that it’s easy to find with a simple online search.
Sourcing canned snails here seems to be more of a challenge if you’re not a professional chef, so I also suggest another online task, going to Amazon to order, which has an amazing collection of gourmet foodstuffs at your fingertips and Prime shipping if you’re a member.
Whole Foods Market
And finally, if you would really like to try your hand at home with minimal fuss, then Whole Foods in Mount Pleasant carries an oven-ready frozen escargot product in its seafood department. A dozen French escargot are prepared with butter and garlic and you simply pop them in the oven at 300 degrees and they’re ready in about 12 minutes.
Stephanie Burt grew up in Charlotte on good Southern cooking and lots of books. She received both her BA and MA in English from UNC Charlotte and was a former instructor of English and American Studies there. She has made Charleston her home since 2005. Most recently the director of digital content for The Local Palate, Stephanie also is the host of The Southern Fork, http://thesouthernfork.com, a weekly podcast of culinary conversations with a Southern twist. Reach her at email@example.com.