Monday, February 6, 2012

curled in its shell




When I was young(er), I used to go grocery shopping with my parents every weekend. For the Chinese, it's all a family event - my mother makes the final decision of course, but everyone had input on what we wanted to eat. It was a great education in Chinese cooking, especially the seafood - you picked out which fish you wanted in the tank, and they'd lift it out with a net. A sharp whack on the head, a few snips to clean and gut it . . . same with the shrimp, crab, shellfish. One of the best food memories I have as a child were the times during the winter that we ate snails.

That was back when they literally had tankfuls of them, and you could pick them one by one. I used to get so excited doing that - standing up on my toes, fingers getting numb in the icy water. We picked for good sized shells, good weight, and white flesh. Once home, I'd dunk it all in a basin of ice water with a touch of vegetable oil, to help clean it out. Leave it alone for half an hour, and the snails start crawling out, all over the place.

Cooked quickly, then you get to work with a toothpick. In Shanghai, the varietal of snail eaten has a thin shell, so they cut out off the tip of the shell, letting air come in through two ends. And what does that accomplish? You're then able to suck the snails out of their shells. My favourite foods were always all about texture - that's where I get my current obsession from. Cooked properly, the snails remain firm, and retain an earthy, savoury flavour. Delicious, and a little piece of my childhood.

Toothpick in, pull it halfway out. Use the lip of the shell to cut off the bottom half the snail, which is all the digestive system and the tail that you don't want to eat. Quick swirl in the sauce, into the mouth!

Stir fried snails in a black bean sauce:

Live snails, if possible - there are many methods to clear out their digestive tracts, including letting them feed on carrots, but I soak them in ice cold water and a few drops of vegetable oil.

Quickly rinse off the shells.

Hot pan, oil, and toss in your ginger slices and julienned green onion.

Snails into the pan, and toss quickly. A good amount of Shaoxing cooking wine, and a few spoonfuls of black bean sauce.

Sprinkle of sugar, lid on. And now's the time to watch carefully, because you don't want to overcook them. About 75 seconds? Just under 2 minutes? You don't want the sauce too runny. Have lots of toothpicks and napkins ready.


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