Inspiration comes in many forms.
Reading a clever turn of phrase that captivates. Feeling the bracing spray of the ocean against your face. Viewing the magnificence of a rocket-red sunset.
For me, it came in the form of snails.
Escargot, actually. Loaded up in a saucy dish at Cassia in Santa Monica to be exact.
Chef Bryant Ng melds French and Vietnamese influences in his dishes. His charred naan-like flatbread with a side of chopped lemongrass escargot, which I enjoyed at his restaurant earlier this year, is nothing short of spectacular.
My husband and I attacked the dish, finishing every last drop and crumb. All the while, I kept thinking how amazing this escargot would be tossed with pasta.
So, when I got home, I ordered three cans of Saveurs Helix extra large escargot on Amazon for about $22. They’re fully cooked, so all you need do is drain the cans to use them.
When they arrived, I got cracking. I wasn’t really sure what Ng had put in his escargot except for “lemongrass, butter and herbs,” which was all that was listed on the menu description.
I got some lemongrass stalks. I figured if I was making a sort of Vietnamese-Italian mash-up that cilantro and parsley would be good picks for the herbs. And of course, one definitely needs some shallots, garlic and white wine. Fish sauce ought to be a component, too, as well as fresh lime for a bright finishing touch.
The escargot are fairly large, and let’s face it, not the most attractive of creatures. So, rough chopping them will disguise the fact that they’re snails if anyone is a little squeamish.
Because lemongrass is rather woody, after sauteeing it with shallots and garlic, I blitzed the mixture in a food processor until it was paste-like before adding my other ingredients. A bottle of clam juice helps loosen the mixture to make it more saucy. But if all you have is chicken stock on hand, just use it. I won’t judge.
A pinch of red pepper flakes gives a little touch of heat, while a pat of butter stirred into the sauce gives it just a little more body.
Toss it all with the hot pasta, and finish it with the fresh lime zest and juice. The escargot are chewy with a taste of salinity not unlike clams. The dish is very much like an Asian-take on a pasta vongole with the heavenly fragrance of lemongrass.
I can’t say that it necessarily replicates Cassia’s dish. But it was inspired immensely by it.
Vietnamese Escargot Vongole
2 stalks of lemongrass
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 small shallots, minced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup dry white wine
Red pepper flakes to taste
8 ounces clam juice
3 cans (7 ounces each) escargot, drained and roughly chopped
2 teaspoons Vietnamese fish sauce or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound of spaghetti or linguini
Handful of fresh parsley leaves, chopped
Handful of fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
Zest of one lime
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lime or to taste
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil for finishing
Trim off the very end of the lemongrass stalks. You want to use the tender part of the stalk, which is about the bottom five inches of it. Peel off the tough outer layer and discard. Next, pummel the stalks with a meat mallet until slightly flattened, then cut the stalks into 1-inch lengths.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. Saute the lemongrass with the shallots and garlic, stirring frequently, until shallots start to soften. Add wine, and allow to cook for a minute or two.
Transfer contents of the pot to a food processor. Blitz until a rough paste forms. Transfer the mixture back to the saucepan and saute again on medium heat. Add red pepper flakes to taste. Pour in clam juice and the chopped escargot. Stir in fish sauce to taste. Add a grind of black pepper. Stir in the butter. Turn down the heat to low.
Bring to a boil on the stovetop a large pot of salted water. Add the pasta, and stir so the noodles don’t stick together. Cook until almost al dente.
Reserve about 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta.
Add the pasta back into the large emptied pot. Stir in the escargot sauce. Heat on medium heat, and stir to combine. If the mixture seems too dry, add in a little of the reserved pasta cooking water.
Turn off the heat. Stir in the parsley, cilantro, lime zest and lime juice. Drizzle over the extra virgin olive oil. Divide pasta among four shallow bowls and serve.
— From Carolyn Jung