New Year's food resolution: Start the year off with...snails?

A BOOK I seldom let go of back when I was knee-high to a knockwurst, was a dogeared illustrated paperback of ``Ripley's Believe it, or Not.'' It contained an entire chapter on food - the heaviest pumpkin, largest squash, longest cucumber, etc.

One entry in particular was an eye-catcher. It was a caricature of a Frenchman - complete with rather rakish beret, Dali-esque mustache, and striped shirt.

The Frenchman's large eyes bulged out in anticipation, as an enormous snail made its way up a fork toward his lips.

Only one sentence accompanied the drawing - ``The French Eat Snails - Believe it, or Not!''

Incroyable!

In my early teens I finally tried my first snail - pardon, escargot - at a French restaurant in Cambridge, Mass.

I didn't exactly order the buttery sextet, but an older, worldly dining companion kindly offered them.

``The texture is very much like a mushroom,'' I was told encouragingly. That didn't help at all - I hated mushrooms.

But I bit, I swallowed, I conquered.

I was hooked, and over the years at home and abroad I've downed dozens upon dozens.

YOU can buy canned snails alone. But they're usually available with a stack of empty shells for a little extra money.

Shells may be used once, but they're difficult to clean and can turn rancid. If you do recycle them, do not use soap when washing as some residue is likely to remain lodged in the spiral shell.

If you're serious about snails, individual ceramic shells and ramekins are your best bet. These are easily washed, and of course are reusable. Another superb way of preparing is heating them in individual mushroom caps.

As canned snails come precooked, all that's necessary is to re-heat them. Always drain and rinse them before preparing.

Fond as you may grow of snails, it's unlikely anyone will soon beat the speed of Thomas Greene of La Plata, Md.

On July 14, 1981, he sat down in Dominique's Restaurant in Washington D.C. and tossed down 350 snails in eight minutes, 29 seconds. His effort made the Guinness Book of World Records.

Snails, Spanish Style 1/4 cup olive oil 1 clove garlic, crushed 1/2 cup finely chopped onion 1/4 cup red bell pepper, julienned and cut in 1/2 inch strips 1/4 cup green bell pepper, julienned and cut in 1/2 inch strips 1 cup raw ham, finely chopped 6 dozen canned snails, rinsed and drained Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1/4 cup parsley, chopped

Heat olive oil in saucepan. Add garlic, onion, peppers, and raw ham. Saut'ee 3 minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly.

Add snails, salt, and pepper. Continue to saut'ee until thoroughly heated. Pour into shallow serving dish. Sprinkle with parsley.

Serves 12.

At La Escargot restaurant in Paris, bits of Roquefort cheese are added to each snail after it's stuffed back into shell.

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