Bulots à l'aïoli (whelks with aioli)

The pretty little sea snails known as whelks are commonly served in France – where they're called bulots or buccins – often cold and accompanied by aïoli for dipping. If you're lucky enough to live in a city with a well-stocked Asian supermarket with a great seafood department, that's a good place to find them. Don't be alarmed if they don't look exactly like these (sometimes they're striped or ridged); "whelk" is a loose term that describes several types of sea snail. You want the ones that are about an inch and a half long, not the large ones. In any case, they couldn't be easier to prepare, and with their garlicky mayo make a fabulous nibble with a glass of rosé on a summer evening.

The instructions for aïoli are for a traditional one, with the option of adding finely chopped basil for an herbal twist. You might want to do half basil aïoli and half traditional; if you want only basil aïoli, consider doubling the leaves and tossing them into the blender halfway through the emulsifying process for a smooth, uniform texture and color. You can use either a blender or a food processor for this; with a blender, the aïoli – a garlicky, mayonnaise-like emulsion – is less likely to "break," or have the oil separate out. If you use a food processor, chop the garlic finely in the food processor first before adding the other ingredients, and when you begin to add the oil, be sure to add it very slowly in the beginning. If it does break, don't panic: put a fresh egg yolk in a separate bowl, and slowly whisk in the broken aïoli. 

The whelks may be served warm, cooled to room temp or chilled in the fridge, making them an ideal party bite. They can be a little tricky to eat: remove the hard flap, then use a toothpick to gently coax the meat out of the shell. 

Serves 4-6 as an hors d'oeuvre.

For the whelks:

Ingredients

1 1/2 to 2 pounds whelks

2 bay leaves

1/2 onion, sliced

5 or 6 thyme sprigs

A splash of white wine

Sea salt

Instructions

1. Place the whelks in a bowl, cover with cold water and let them sit 10 minutes. Rinse.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil with the bay leaves, onion, thyme, white wine and a generous amount of sea salt. Add the whelks, and if you're going to serve them warm, cook them 20 minutes, adjusting the heat so they're boiling but not clanging around too much. Drain them and serve with aïoli. If you're going to serve them room temp or chilled, cook for 15 minutes, remove the covered pan from the heat and then let them cool in the water. Then drain and serve with the aïoli, or chill.

For the aïoli:

Ingredients

5 garlic cloves, peeled

1 egg yolk

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice (juice of half a medium lemon of average juiciness)

1/2 cup olive oil

salt

1 tablespoon finely chopped basil (about 5 large leaves – optional)

Instructions

1. Place the garlic in the bowl of a blender with the egg yolk, mustard and lemon juice. Pulse until the garlic is finely chopped and the ingredients are combined.

2. With the blender running, very slowly pour the oil in a very thin stream until it is all incorporated. Add salt to taste.

3. If you want to make some of it into basil aïoli, place half the aïoli into a small bowl and stir in the chopped basil.