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!