Key Ingredient: Whelks | Key Ingredient | Chicago Reader

Key Ingredient: Whelks 

The Drawing Room's Nick Lacasse pays homage to his mom with the sea snails

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Sauteed whelks with foie gras, white balsamic butter, preserved lemon, herbed salad, and grilled bread

Sauteed whelks with foie gras, white balsamic butter, preserved lemon, herbed salad, and grilled bread

Julia Thiel

The Chef: Nick Lacasse (the Drawing Room)

The challenger: Shawn McClain (Green Zebra)

The ingredient: Whelks

Nick Lacasse experienced a slight hiccup while ordering whelks from his fish purveyor for this challenge. "They sent me five cases of elk," he said.

He ended up getting the whelks and returned the elk. But the little sea snails don't seem to be a familiar ingredient in the midwest. His supplier sent out an e-mail to her coworkers asking who knew about whelks, he said, and got several responses with a picture of Lawrence Welk. Lacasse worked with whelks once at a stage he did in Boston; his job was to pick the meat out of "a mountain of tiny little shells" for hours on end. Despite that experience, he wanted to find fresh whelks in the shell for his challenge, but discovered that it was "near impossible" in Chicago. The ones he got were fresh, but had already been taken out of the shell.

Whelks, according to Lacasse, are like a cross between land snails, clams, and conch; they look like mini conches, with a spiral shell. "I feel like because they're sea snails and not earth snails, it's kind of cleaner . . . there's a lot of weird little parts on a [land] snail; even if you trim off anything questionable, it's still got a muddy sort of thing to it. And the whelks are cleaner."

Lacasse says he grew up eating snails, which are one of his favorite foods. "It was a food I would eat sitting on the couch with my mom, watching The Cosby Show. We'd have a little tube of liverwurst and a crusty baguette and some diced onions and a can of snails. I don't remember how she would cook them. Pretty simply—we never had wine in the house so I'm sure it was just butter, probably dried parsley, but so delicious, just tearing off chunks of bread, dipping it in the buttery snails, smearing on some liver."

When he was deciding what to cook with the whelks, Lacasse kept that in mind. He learned that whelks are common in the UK, where they're steamed and served in the shell with a little malt vinegar, which appealed to him. "But I decided to go with the homage-to-mom route. So we've got some whelks with some foie gras, a little bit of white balsamic butter pan sauce, tarragon, some chile flake, a little preserved lemon, almost like a bruschetta."

The flavor of whelks is fairly mild, Lacasse says, so the dish is more about texture for him, the whelks serving as a "vehicle for whatever you're going to put with it, sauces and such." He cut the rubbery parts off, then quickly sauteed the whelks in butter with shallots, tarragon, chile flakes, white wine, and white balsamic vinegar, serving them on toast with foie gras and a salad of frisee, pickled ramps, tarragon, and preserved lemon.

Lacasse liked the balance of the rich foie gras, vinegary and spicy whelks, and the herb salad. "Not quite like mom made it, but . . . the whelk is definitely the last thing you're chewing on. You got the bread crust; the foie just kind of melts and ties the stuff together."

"Snails are a little more melty, whereas the texture of this is a little more chewy, even though they're only sauteed for ten seconds. Yeah, very clammy. But I like it."


Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Who's Next:

Justin White of Small Bar, whom Lacasse tried to trick into picking his own poison by texting him to ask about the three most disgusting things he could think of. White chose lungs, black egg, and durian, but Lacasse couldn't bring himself to subject his friend to cooking with lungs. He chose ostrich eggs instead. 

Sauteed whelks with foie gras, preserved lemon, herbed salad, rhubarb, white

balsamic butter, and grilled bread

Whelks

2 lbs petite whelks steamed out of shell, or fresh in shell

White wine/white balsamic: 70/30 ratio in a squeeze bottle

Chile flakes

Tarragon

2 shallots, minced

If fresh in the shell:

Rinse the whelks in cold water, shaking away any dirt or debris. Steam in covered pan for five minutes with white wine, chile flakes, and tarragon sprigs, then set aside to chill. With a bamboo skewer, pick whelks from their shell. Set aside.

If steamed out of shell:

Pinch off "abdomen" part of the whelk, the gooey intestinal textured part, and "foot" attachment. Quick-rinse the remaining meat, dry, and marinate in fresh herb sprigs and olive oil.

Cook the whelks:

In saute pan, sweat shallots in two tablespoons of oil on low heat for five minutes. Add whelks, turn heat to medium high, and cook for another three minutes. Add four tablespoons butter and swirl with the whelks and shallots until browned. Lower heat once browning begins, then about ten seconds before butter is going to burn, turn heat up, and squeeze in white wine/white balsamic, shaking vigorously to emulsify the reducing liquid into the hot fat. Lower the heat, add chopped tarragon and pinch of chile flakes. If needed, add a small amount of cold butter. Adjust seasoning and pull off heat.

Foie Gras

1 lobe B-grade foie gras

½ t salt

½ t sugar

Pinch pink salt

Pinch ground white pepper

1 t orange-blossom water

1 T St-Germain

Kosher salt

Let the foie come to room temperature, separate the two parts, and scrape down inside of lobes, reserving scrapings. Remove veins with tweezers and discard. Once all veins and blood spots are removed, on a double layer of plastic form a rectangle with the remainder of the lobe and fill in with the cleaned scrapings. Press out any air holes, and season with a mix of sugar, salt, white pepper, and pink salt. Sprinkle with St-Germain and orangeblossom water, wrap, and chill for one hour. Form the flat foie into a roll, first in plastic wrap, then cheesecloth, squeezing out any air holes, and tie up (making sure torchon is rolled tightly). Bury in coarse sea salt for 20 hours. If firm, remove cheesecloth, place into airtight bag, and chill.

Rhubarb Compote

6 rhubarb stalks

2 cups simple syrup

Lemon

Chop rhubarb small and cook over low heat with syrup until thick. Season with juice of one lemon, puree, and cool.

Salad

Flat leaf parsley

Frisee

Tarragon

Julienned preserved lemon peel

Chives

Tiny croutons

Pickled ramps

Rice wine vinegar/extra-virgin olive oil: mix of equal parts

Pick leaves of tarragon and parsley and mix with trimmed frisee, chive batons, sliced pickled ramps, julienne of preserved lemon peel, and croutons. Dress with vinaigrette and salt and pepper.

Plating

Spoon a little swoosh of rhubarb compote onto the plate first. Slice three or four quarter-inch-thick pieces of cured foie and place on plate. Arrange grilled toast next to it. Check salad seasoning again and pile some by the liver and toast. Spoon whelks out of pan on top of part of the toast and spoon pan sauce around plate to garnish. Herb leaves, good olive oil, sea salt, and fennel pollen are all good (optional) toppers.

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