Cooking snails with Peconic Escargot’s Taylor Knapp

Berrgenyon made with Peconic Escargot. (Courtesy photo)

It’s time to abandon the notion that escargot is strictly served at black-tie affairs on white tablecloths. Peconic Escargot — the country’s first USDA-certified snail farm — is making the French delicacy accessible to the masses. Beginning this winter, home cooks will be able to find snails raised in Cutchogue in the freezer at select specialty grocers and at cheese shops across Long Island.

The fresh-to-frozen packages, which contain roughly two-dozen raw snails each, can be incorporated into easy-to-prepare recipes provided by owner and chef Taylor Knapp, who also owns the pop-up restaurant PawPaw.

“We are trying to make it more accessible for people to do at home with little culinary experience,” Knapp said. “It is just as easy as cooking shrimp or chicken at home. If you know how to cook the base protein, you can bring in any flavors you want.”

Used in Asian stir fry or served alongside grits and crisp bacon, the versatility of Peconic Escargot has been embraced on menus at high-profile restaurants such as New York City’s award-winning Eleven Madison Park and by local chefs at Touch of Venice in Cutchogue and the seasonal Barba Bianca in Greenport.

Before Peconic Escargot, most of the escargot available in regional restaurants was sourced from a can. Knapp launched the company after realizing there was no way to prepare fresh escargot locally.

In 2014, he established the ranch on a slice of Cutchogue land leased from the Peconic Land Trust through the nonprofit’s “Farms for the Future” initiative, which aims to protect the future of agriculture on the East End. Today, his operation raises tens of thousands of snails annually.

When the snails are ready to be harvested, they are driven from the Cutchogue greenhouse to the Stony Brook Business Incubator in Calverton, where they are processed and vacuum-sealed. They are sold raw, with the shell intact, both to restaurants and to a growing number of home cooks.

“The way we were doing it, and will continue to do for restaurants, is process-to-order,” Knapp said. “Home cooks could call and ask for it, but there would be a lot of lead time on an order … the frozen product will make it readily available.”

As Peconic Escargot prepares to launch its line of frozen escargot, Knapp and fellow North Fork chefs shared their secrets to cooking with snails.

Taylor Knapp, founder of Peconic Escargot, is chasing the way people eat snails. (Credit: David Benthal)

A FAMILIAR FLAVOR

If you haven’t tried escargot, the flavor is more familiar than you might think. Knapp likens it to the earthy taste of a mushroom with a texture similar to that of a clam or mussel.

“It is almost like shellfish,” Knapp said.

Peconic Escargot raises a French heritage species of snail called petit gris or “little grey.” It’s known for its tenderness. Fed a diet of foraged greens and spent beer grain, the escargot is herbaceous with nutty undertones, lending it to an array of dishes from stuffed mushrooms to a traditional Italian babbalucci. Basic garlic and butter sauce is also a go-to recipe for a simple meal. Knapp has also been known to use escargot in ramen.

The benefit of working with raw snails — as opposed to canned — is not only knowing where your food is coming from, but being able to put your own stamp on the preparation.

“Canned snails in general need to be processed at a high temperature, so they end up being overcooked to begin with, unfortunately … and it is very salty,” Knapp said. “It would be like cooking with a pre-seasoned fish. Chefs benefit when the snail is as close to unadulterated as possible.”

These pure flavors have made them a hit among customers at Touch of Venice, where chef and co-owner Brian Pennacchia has had Peconic Escargot on the menu for two years — ever since Knapp started selling commercially — as both specials and an appetizer.

“It has a rich, earthy flavor that doesn’t pick up any other possible flavors from the canning process. It is a straight flavor,” Pennacchia said. “We get a great response when it is on the menu.

A SIMPLE SIMMER FOR MAXIMUM FLAVOR

Raw escargot can be prepared in its shell or outside. Knapp has found in-shell snails are best par-cooked in broth, white wine or simply salted water for 30 to 45 minutes.

“The shell protects them from overcooking while getting them nice ‘ At Touch of Venice, Pennacchia
and tender,” he said. “That first par-cooking step is how we recommend everyone start preparing escargot. From there you can do whatever you want as far as flavor.”

Start the snails in a small sauce pot then cover with cold water or stock and add a generous pinch of salt. From there, you can make the liquid your own by incorporating aromatic herbs and spices: Crushed garlic, ginger, lemon and peppercorn are some of the flavor infusions Knapp recommends.

Bring the snails to a simmer while skimming off and discarding any foam that rises to the surface. After the snails have simmered — not boiled — transfer them and the liquid to a shallow container. Voilà — the base of your escargot dish has been prepared.

The “little gray” snails are raised at Knapp’s Cutchogue farm. (Credit: David Benthal)

OUT OF THE SHELL INTO THE FRYING PAN (OR GRILL)

Shelled snails can also be slow-cooked using the par-cooking method, but if you’re looking for something quicker, preparing shelled escargot makes for a snappy dish. It takes only 1 to 3 minutes to fry, grill or sauté the snails, Knapp said. The shorter cook time results in plump and juicy snails — similar to clams or calamari.

Knapp recommends marinating them for 15 to 20 minutes before cooking. He suggests olive oil, parsley, chopped garlic, salt and pepper, lemon juice and lemon zest or a combination of soy sauce, ginger, lime and cilantro.

“It is even more versatile when you don’t have the shell involved,” Knapp said. “It can go on pasta or pizza or a taco. We have done crois- sants with herb cheese.”

At Touch of Venice, Pennacchia opts for simple shelled preparation. His Peconic Escargot appetizer comprises sautéed snails in garlic butter, chardonnay sauce with sweet Spanish piquillo peppers atop a grilled baguette.

“We like to cook them this way because it’s simpler and easier for the customer to eat,” he said. “It is something traditional with a twist.”

Barba Bianca chef and owner Frank DeCarlo serves his Bovoletti con Polenta entrée with flash-sautéed escargot in a garlic, white wine, lemon butter sauce.

“It is a 10-second process,” DeCarlo said. “We cook it in a very hot castiron skillet to sear the snails, cook off the wine and blend the flavors in a short amount of time.”

HOW TO SERVE SNAILS

Serving snails in the shell is a novel way to impress most party guests.

Diners can remove the snail meat easily and safely with a toothpick or a small shellfish pick. Hold the pick in the right hand and the snail in the left hand, stick the pick into the meat of the snail and twist the shell in a clockwise direction to cleanly release the snail meat.

“It makes a great presentation,” Knapp said. “It is cool to pick the meat out of the shells. You have to know your audience. If the people coming over to your house that night wouldn’t want to crack open their own lobster, don’t feed them snails in the shell; try it shelled on a crostini instead.”

DeCarlo plates his Bovoletti con Polenta with sautéed snails over creamy, cheesy polenta and garnished with the leftover, intact shells.

“It makes it distinguished,” he said.

Learn more, peconicescargot.com