Gypsy Kitchens: There's a Snail in my Lentils!

Nothing feels more French than escargot. But since we're, technically, not in France and are, instead, looking out over the sea in Monaco, it seemed appropriate to cook bulots instead. Bulots, or "whelks" in English, are sea snails. They come from the Northeast Atlantic and are pretty similar to conch.
We decided to make an earthy dish of green lentils, mushrooms, carrot, parsnip and bulots. Originally, we were hoping for some great, fresh mushrooms we'd seen a few days ago, but they were no longer available at the store. This wound up being fortuitous, because rehydrating the dried mushrooms gave us a great broth to use as our cooking liquid. Of course, the star of our show was the coquillage.
Ours were purchased pre-cooked and vacuum sealed from the fish section of the supermarket. Preparing raw whelks would have entailed a 1 - 2 hour salt bath, which forces them to expel any waste or mucus. We were fine with skipping this step - plus, no raw ones were available. A shorter, salt-free bath was still necessary, to wash off all the sand and dirt. It was simple enough to prepare the snails while getting the rest of the meal started.
One of our greatest pleasures in life, especially such a nomadic one, is the smell of onions cooking. Back before the trip, we always used butter, but being as buying a stick of butter and refrigerating it is barely ever an option for us, we've been opting for olive oil. Tonight, we cooked with butter for the first time in over a year. The smell of sautéing onions was almost magical. Carrots and parsnip were added in and softened with a few spoonfuls of our mushroom broth. Finally, the garlic, lentils and rest of the broth were cooked together until soft but not mushy.
While that was all cooking up, we went back to our whelks. It was removal time and we brought in a pair of tweezers for the job. Most came out easily, but a few really took some yanking. The pliers in our Leatherman came in handy for the really stubborn ones. We tore off the little pieces of shell, which look like protective shields and removed any lingering gunk. They were huge guys and we cut a number of them in half. One final rinse and they were ready to go.In they went! Fresh parsley and lemon topped it all off, to make sure things stayed bright. The snails added a simple, clean note to the otherwise rustic dish. Equal parts root vegetable, lentil, mushroom and seafood, it was complex but not muddy - hearty without being heavy. The toothsomeness of the bulots was somewhere between calamari and conch. It's hard to imagine a different or better protein for this dish. Somehow, the meal really captured our time and place, feeling the sea breeze as we transition into Fall.

Bulots with Lentils, Mushrooms and Root Vegetables
1 cup bulots, shelled (around 2 dozen snails)
1 cup green lentils
2 carrots
1 parsnip
1 cup dry forest mushrooms
2 cloves garlic
1 medium yellow onion
1/2 cup diced parsley (we used curly, can be flat)
1/2 large lemon

- Wash, rinse, shell, clean and halve bulots.
- Reconstitute mushrooms according to package instructions. Remove mushrooms with slotted spoon and retain water. This is your broth.
- Sautee onion in butter.
- Add parsnip and carrot (both peeled and cubed) to the onion along with a splash of mushroom broth. Cook until softened.
- Add about 2 cups of broth and bring to a boil.
- Add garlic and lentils. Lower heat to a simmer and cook until beans are tender. (20 - 40 minutes. Lentils can vary.)
- Add chopped parsley, squeeze in lemon and mix in bulots.
- Let sit for about five minutes, so that fish can heat up and the flavors can mix.
- Salt at the end. Salting lentils while they cook can affect the cooking time.
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