A Delicious Way to Silence Those Noisy Little Cicadas
As many of us have heard, the invasion of the 17-year cicada is well underway in Northeast Ohio.
The cicada mating call is loud, incessant, and to many humans, infuriating. But there may be an upside. We can’t beat them, but as WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports in today’s Quick Bite, we can eat them.
Jeremy Umansky sorts through the cicadas he recently gathered. He examines the little critters closely, selecting only the tastiest-looking specimens to drop into his cooking bowl.
“We have one here that was attacked by some sort of wild fungus. We want to get rid of that. That’s not necessarily appetizing.”
This is the kind of thing Umansky loves to do. “I work as a chef and a forager.”
He’s a classically trained chef, but there weren’t any courses on cooking insects at the Culinary Institute of America, so he basically taught himself.
And he’s been waiting 17 years for the chance to cook cicadas.
“There are a few species of ants around here that you can eat -- them or their eggs. Bees are completely edible, but we like to keep them around to make our other food. Cicadas are really one of the only ones that’s easy and reliable to forage.”
Cicadas haven’t yet invaded Umansky’s Cleveland Heights neighborhood. He grabbed these at a friend’s horse barn in Hunting Valley.
Easy to nab and kill
He says it wasn’t hard to scoop up a big bunch. “They don’t bite. They’re fairly lethargic so they don’t really move so much.”
Killing them was easy, too.
“They freeze very, very well. It’s actually a very humane way to kill them for food. Simply, after you’ve gathered them, put them in a bag and put them in the freezer. They’ll slowly go to sleep and then die.”
Cicadas are more than just perfectly edible. Some might call them health food. Low in fat and carbs, they pack more protein per pound than red meat.
“They also belong to the same family that shrimp belongs to," says Umansky, "so that ends up being a very predominant flavor in them.”
They’re certainly not pretty, with those big red eyes. But that didn't stop ancient Greeks from gobbling them
with gusto. Aristotle rhapsodized about the seasonal delicacy, despite its very long season and short availability. Once they emerge every 17 years, they’re dead and gone within a few weeks.
Modern-day entomophagists, insect-eaters like Umansky, have to scurry now to catch and cook them. They say they're as succulent as shrimp, or another arthropod that's currently molting.
"Right now we're in soft-shell crab season, " says Umansky. "The crab busts out of its old shell, and a new one hardens on the outside. The cicadas are doing the same exact thing."
After they molt there's just a two-hour window of opportunity before the second shell hardens, but Umansky nabbed these ones early enough for the recipe he has in mind.
Easy as French fries to make
The chef chooses a fairly simple preparation. “We’re going to give them just a light rinse. Then we’re going
to put them through a milk and flour bath to batter them up, and then they’re going to get deep-fried.”
The battering process is super quick. “We’re taking the cicadas. Just mixing them a little bit in the flour. We’re going to dip them into our milk. We’re going to shake the loose milk off and put them back in the flour one last time.”
The only tricky thing is making sure the oil’s hot enough. “We just kind of dip one of them in there gently. We can hear the oil start to sizzle."
It’s hot enough for the rest of the cicadas. “We’re going to put them all in and give them just a quick stir. Once these develop a nice golden-brown color to them we’ll take them off.”
Ready for the sandwich
It takes just 2 1/2 minutes. “They look ready. So we’re going to take them out of the oil.” He lays them on paper towels “to let some of the oil drain off.”
He wants the true flavor to emerge so he adds just a little salt and fresh cracked pepper.
The fried cicadas are ready now to lay on a bed of shredded lettuce. For a New Orleans-style po’ boy sandwich, Umansky has chosen a soft brioche bun.
He could have made the traditional remoulade sauce but gets a similar flavor profile by slathering the bun with ketchup, mayo, and mustard, and then instead of capers "we’re just going to cut thin slices of dill pickle going lengthwise. And we’ll lay them right on the sandwich.
And they’ll give us just that sour tang bite and that little bit of vegetable crunch that we’re looking for.”
A handful of potato chips garnishes the plate. All that’s needed now are the cicadas.
“We’re going to layer them right on the sandwich. And as you can hear they crisped up really nice.”
Just a final New Orleans touch. “Little bit of hot sauce.”
Many other uses
Po’boys work as well with cicadas as they do with shrimp or soft-shell crab, but the chef knows many other ways to bring out the best in the insects.
“These would go great, speaking of Louisiana food, in an etoufee," he says. " You could also do, if you’re OK seeing the cicada in your food, shrimp with a little bit of lemon-butter sauce tossed with pasta, substitute the cicada.”
What’s nice about the sandwich, though, is we can no longer see those scary little red eyes.
“Putting a fried coating on them or putting them in a sandwich,” says Umansky, “is going to make your adventure in bug eating a lot easier going in your first time.”
Umansky plans to collect enough cicadas during the current swarm to make garum, a fermented fish sauce ancient Greeks used as a condiment.
“Instead of using fish I’ll be using the cicadas. This is a long process. It can take up to a year to make. But I’ll take the cicadas and I’ll mix them with salt and allow them to sit until I get this wonderful, savory, umami sauce.”
The chef suggests using cicadas in any of your favorite shrimp recipes. He warns, though, that if you’re allergic to shellfish, cicadas are not for you. And if you’re concerned about pesticides, forage in the forest and avoid the cicadas crying out from your neighbor’s lawn.
You’ll know when they’re near. “Their noise output is almost equal at close range to that of a jet engine.”
A reliable food source for a hungry planet
In a world where by 2050 almost 9.6 billion people will have to share what food we have, we may have to overcome our aversion to bugs.
Native Americans know they’re OK, but insects have never crawled into modern American cuisine. “If we look at them worldwide, though," says Umansky, "they’re reliable, sustainable sources of protein, and our neighbors down in Mexico eat them by the basketful.”
Some chefs remove the head, legs, and wings from their cicadas, but not Umansky. He says they're fine just as they are, and taste a little like what they feed on themselves. “Cicadas mainly for most of their life suck on the saps and the juices from different types of trees and their roots underground. So because of this they get this almost green, grassy, slightly woodsy flavor.”
The U.N. reports 2 billion people consume insects in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Australia, so Quick Bites decided to give cicadas a try and really liked them.
To describe the taste? Slightly shrimpy, and a little nutty. We’re ready to try again in about 17 years.