Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bug Appétit

© Audubon Nature Institute

Last weekend it was rainy and windy in Santa Barbara. It made for a perfect opportunity to purge and organize my closet. While I felt like I should get a gold star for this painful task, I'm happy to report that not all my weekends are so lame. For instance, just a few weekends ago, I ate bugs. Yep, you read that right. I was in New Orleans to watch this game (Roll Tide), and got a VIP tour of the Insectarium and a surprise bug tasting while in town.

A friend introduced me to the Zack Lemann, a.k.a. the Cajun Bug Chef and Visitor Program Manager of the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium. He was nice enough to walk us through the museum and give us a private tasting. Not exactly my normal weekend fare.

We sampled Hoppin' Herb Dip ( I had to take a bite to prove that I did actually eat this). . .

. . . some wormy chutney (OK this one was a bit harder to get down)

. . . some Crispy Cajun Crickets and Cinnamon Bug Crunch

. . . and my favorite Chocolate Chirp Cookies. Seriously, these were delicious, and I found out quite nutritious.

Zack was nice enough to agree to an interview to share more tales from the bug kitchen:

© Shea Walsh

Q: How did you land this gig?
A: Well, the famous biologist E.O. Wilson said, " Most kids have a bug period, and I never grew out of mine." I volunteered at the zoo as a teenager and wanted to play with bugs in my hometown of New Orleans. When the Insectarium opened in 2008, I jumped at the chance to be their Visitor Program Manager, which is kind of like leading "show-and-tell" with bugs every day. I'm the luckiest guy.

Q: I hear the Cajun Bug Chef has been asked to be on TV several times. Did you pursue a cooking degree?
A: I have had the pleasure of being on Jay Leno, Montel Williams, Today Show, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and my most memorable was Megabugs with Johnny Rotten. And while I have never attended culinary school, I do have some Cajun in me!

Q: What are the best bugs for eating? Will any do?
A: Well, if you're going to procure some bugs for eating, you want to target large, green or brown bugs. Avoid red, orange and yellow "warning" coloration. And avoid catching bugs in urban areas where there is a much greater chance of pesticides and other pollutants on your bugs. I'd say crickets, grasshoppers, beetle larvae, and wax worms are probably the most commonly consumed. Crickets may sound mundane but are one of the best tasting bugs. You can eat them without much adornment. Most bugs taste like nuts but have a wide variety of flavors. For instance, macadamia nuts taste quite different from almonds. Bugs are the same way. Westerners most usually go for bugs incorporated into dishes instead of an unfettered fashion.

Q: Is there any nutritional value in bugs?
A: Plenty! In fact there are quite a few studies underway that are exploring how bug cuisine could help address some of the nutritional deficiencies certain areas are facing. They are typically high in protein but really offer a good balanced profile of carbs, fat and protein. They also provide a lot of calcium, iron, thiamin and niacin.

Q: What's your mission as the Cajun Bug Chef?
A: Well, this is New Orleans, a city obsessed with good food. There is no way I'm gonna cook up anything that doesn't taste good. I've got the City's culinary reputation to uphold!

Q: What's your favorite way to eat a bug?
A: It's hard to choose just one, but I won't turn down crickets or dragonflies fried with a sliver of mushroom and topped with a dash of dijon soy butter.

Q: OK, you're making my mouth water! Have you had any bug cooking disasters?
A: I was cooking at a private event in 2010 and was asked to cook silkworm pupae. I'd never cooked these before and could only find them canned. When I opened them, they just smelled awful. I doctored them up as much as I could but nothing could cover up the smell. That dish pretty much went untouched at the party.

Q: What's your favorite bug trivia you like to whip out at a cocktail party?
A: Oh that's easy. Dragonfly penises! The male's reproductive organ is split into two parts. One secretes sperm and the other acts as a scoop. This comes in handy when a male encounters a female dragonfly. He can tell if she's already been "deflowered." If so, he can scoop out the previous visitor's sperm and deposit his own. They're very much Alpha Males. You will see them flying around holding a female on his back. It looks like they're doing a beautiful dance, but he's really just trying to hold onto her after he's made his deposit to prevent someone else from "scooping" him before she lays her eggs in the water.

© Audubon Nature Institute

If you are ever in the Big Easy, the Insectarium is a must see for anyone. There are so many beautiful and amazing insects to see, walk amongst and learn about (like this stunning pink katydid). And possibly eat if you're feeling adventurous.

Chocolate Chirp Cookies
[I'm dying to know if anyone will make these! If so, please report back!]

Take your favorite chocolate chip recipe and add roasted house crickets. But don't mix them in the batter with the chips. If you do, no one will see them. After you have placed the cookie dough on the baking sheet, gently put a few crickets atop each cookie. This way, when the cookies are done baking you can showcase the bugs!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Oh Snap!

We had a cold snap last night. And when the temps drop, I go for two things: a fire and soup. OK and maybe a hot toddy.

I decided the perfect Rx would be the bourbon butternut squash bisque I served at my bourbon tasting party a few months ago. While I often think of butternut squash soup as over-rated, this version is definitely off the hook. Seriously, when I served it at the party, I felt like a drug pusher, forcing a cup of this soup on anyone with—or without—a spare hand.

What makes it so different? It isn't overly sweet. It actually isn't really sweet at all. Well, I gave some to my friend's 4-year old daughter who inhaled it but said it tasted "just like watermelon." Well, she is only four so has a somewhat limited palette, but she also just consumed a hearty helping of vegetables so what mom would complain? Well, there was a healthy dose of bourbon in it so maybe that explains the strange proclamation?

Anyway, the roasted butternut squash for the base does get all lovely and caramelized, but it surely doesn't taste like dessert (or fruit). It's perfectly rounded out by a generous addition of leeks, onions, garlic and cumin. The nutmeg adds a little somethin' somethin' that no one can ever put their finger on. It's almost always the secret ingredient in a recipe but this time I beg to differ. This recipe called for soy sauce which added a nice note of saltiness to the sweetness of the vegetables, creating more depth to the soup than I think it would have had otherwise.

Then there was some "flair" added in because really who wants to eat boring soup?! I'm talking about a little maple syrup, some dry sherry and, of course, bourbon. It's been well documented that I like the eat my bourbon as much as I like to drink it, but it's for good reason. When done well, it gives a slight hint of vanilla, caramel and even smoke to a dish, transforming simple ingredients into a three-diminsional tasting experience. In short, it takes a dish from ordinary to memorable, which is just what occurs here.

This really does come together in a snap There's no breaking down of fatty proteins or tenderizing beans for hours. Once the squash is roasted, you're basically just adding a few finishing touches and heating it up to bring all the flavors together. The pureeing is not even necessary but the silkiness of a pureed soup just feels so indulgent. The finished color is gorgeous and the taste positively swoon-worthy.

So cook this up and stay toasty, my friends!

Butternut Squash and Bourbon Bisque

8 cups cubed butternut squash
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 cup diced onions
1 cup diced leeks
1/2 tsp ground cumin
2 Tbsp chopped fresh garlic
1 Tbsp chopped fresh ginger
2 Tbsp pure maple syrup
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1/4 cup bourbon
1/2 cup dry sherry
1/4 tsp grated whole nutmeg
5 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup evaporated skim milk
Salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbsp cornstarch mixed with 2 Tbsp water

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place cubed squash in a roasting pan and bake for approximately 45 minutes or until tender when stuck with a fork.
2. In a large Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium to medium-high heat and add the onions. Cook until lightly golden brown (approximately 8 - 10 minutes) and add the leeks and cumin. Cook for 2 minutes and add garlic and ginger. When the garlic is fragrant, add the maple syrup, soy sauce, bourbon, sherry and nutmeg. Add the squash and stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and cook gently for about 15 minutes.
3. Using an immersion blender (or a regular blender), puree soup until very smooth. Add the evaporated milk, salt, and pepper. Cook for two minutes; do not bring to a boil. Add the cornstarch mixture and stir until thickened, about 5 minutes.
Note: Serves 6 but easily doubles.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tik Tok

So how's everyone doing with their New Year's resolutions? I know many people, me included, try to clean up our acts in the wake of all the holiday parties and indulging. There is something utterly refreshing about the start of a new year, a new page, a new chance. We make our declarations about eating healthier, exercising more, and imbibing less. So given that, I figured I might as well enjoy one last gluttonous hurrah before all the clean living commenced.

Luckily I had two girlfriends who were insistent that I not go this path alone. We decided to have an "around the clock" dinner party on New Year's Eve. We wrote each hour of the 24-hour day on a separate slip of paper and each drew two "hours" out of a hat. Thankfully, we drew a pretty decent range of times. The challenge was to make a dish and a drink that represents that time of day. The game plan was to start at 7 pm and enjoy a course an hour, thus timing our final course with the arrival of 2012. We figured that would allow us to enjoy a small plate every hour and wash it down with a fine beverage without feeling completely stuffed. Well, let me just say we were stuffed, even with a 3 am departure time.

Things got kicked off with Meredith's "7 am service" of scrambled egg sliders served on top of a homemade bacon-and-Cheddar corn muffin. It was the perfect dish for people who love breakfast for dinner. The bacon studded muffins added a lovely salty note to the sweet corn. But the star might have been her habanero-infused vodka "screwdriver" made with mango and pineapple puree. I could have sipped away on those all night, which probably would've been deadly.

Second up was an early "11 am lunch" of grilled paninis accompanied by an Italian Sangiovese at 8 pm. I served two kinds: one with salami, mozzarella and fig jam and a second with rosemary ham, Emmental cheese and a drizzle of honey. Both turned out to be wonderful flavor combinations that I'd make again.

The next hour, Karen took us slightly Asian for a "1 pm" luncheon salad, which was simple but bursting with flavor. She took an iceberg lettuce salad and dressed it up with mint and a roasted sichuan pepper vinaigrette. But perhaps what stole the show was the sparkling wine she presented with a wild hibiscus flower in the bottom of the glass. It colored the wine slightly pink and added a hint of sweetness. But the real beauty of it was watching the petals unfurl as the sparkling bubbles danced around it. It sounds totally weird but try it sometime to add a bit of whimsy to your next cocktail party. She found a jar at BevMo but look online for other options.

At 10 pm we sat down to enjoy our "6 pm dinner." Meredith went retro with a beef fondue set up with several delicious dipping sauces to boot. We pretty much polished it off in minutes, along with the California Cabernet she'd selected.

Around 11 pm, Karen stuck with the fondue theme but satisfied our sweet tooth with her "10 pm dessert": homemade caramel sauce and beautiful apples to dip into it. It was our one attempt at being pseudo-healthy for the evening. To accompany this dessert, she selected a playful hard apple cider, which was really refreshing.

When midnight struck, we had to take a break to watch the ball drop, blow our horns and toast each other with champagne. While we all claimed to be stuffed, we soldiered on and embraced our final course of the night, which happened to be "midnight!" That was a lucky draw on my part. When I think of eating after midnight, it usually involves a greasy cheeseburger or a slice (or two) of greasy pizza. And since pizza is my favorite food, that's what I went with (sans the grease). I served this Catalonian-style pizza you may recall around 12:30 am.

When all was said and done, it was a wonderfully (full)filling and fun way to usher in 2012. And shockingly no one had a hangover the next morning! I think the late night pizza was the trick.

Bacon-and-Cheddar Corn Muffins
from Southern Living

6 bacon slices
2 cups self-rising white cornmeal mix
1 Tbsp sugar
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 large egg
4 Tbsp melted butter
1 cup (4 oz) shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
Vegetable cooking spray

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cook bacon in a large skillet over medium-high heat 12-14 minutes or until crisp; remove bacon, and drain on paper towels. Crumble bacon.
2. Heat a 12-cup muffin pan in the oven for 5 minutes.
3. Combine cornmeal mix and sugar in medium bowl; make a well in center of mixture.
4. Stir together buttermilk and egg; add to cornmeal mixture, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. Stir in melted butter, cheese and bacon. Remove pan from oven and coat with cooking spray. Spoon batter into hot muffin pan, filling almost completely full.
5. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 - 20 minutes or until golden. Remove form pan to a wire rack and let cool 10 minutes.

Note: We made this muffin into a scramble egg slider, which was heavenly.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Hello, Sunshine!

Well, we're officially on day two of 2012. Like I said, I have a good feeling about this year! The sun has greeted me each morning thus far, which always brightens my mood. If I was an animal, I'd certainly be a cat. You'd find me chasing the sun and napping in it whenever possible. I find total contentment just sitting on a window sill with the rays of light warming my skin. In fact, that's often where you'll find me when I'm on a conference call, eating lunch or even just paging through a magazine. I even move from room to room within the house, trying to keep up with the changing angles of the sun.

But I also ate hoppin' john last night to lock in my good fortune and prosperity. And my friend was kind enough to give me an enormous bag of citrus fruit from her yard.

Oh how I love Winter's abundance of varying shades of yellow and orange fruits that pull the branches of trees almost to the ground, just waiting to be plucked.

It's hard to beat a sweet tangerine. It's like a burst of sunshine in each segment. It's hard not to smile when eating one.

So clearly 2012 is off to a good start. I hope you feel the same!