THE KEY TO enjoying cooked cicadas -- if that is possible -- is to eat them with your eyes closed.
It is not a happy feeling when you are looking down at your cicada hors d'oeuvre and it is looking back up at you, with beady eyes.
Cicadas don't have much flavor and they sure don't look appealing. Earthy and crunchy are two apt descriptors of the crispy critters I ate last week. Earthy makes sense because until they became lunch, these soft cicadas -- the stage before their shells get hard is supposedly when they are at their peak flavor -- had been living in the ground for the past 17 years. There was something of a leaden, bury-me-in-backyard aftertaste that followed the cicada lunch. I felt an urge to power-wash my teeth.
Cicadas do not have much going for them on the gastronomic front. They are, however, Atkins-friendly, which means that, like the diet, they have no carbs and provide endless fodder for conversation.
Still, why anyone who had not lost a bet would eat cicadas is, of course, a very good question. It was one that I and two other Sun colleagues who had been hornswoggled into eating bugs -- Taste editor Liz Atwood and columnist Kevin Cowherd -- asked ourselves as we assembled for a taste test of several cicada recipes.
There were a couple of answers. One was noble: Cicadas are news and it is the public's right to know what they taste like. Another was practical: We had these recipes (see accompanying story) and needed a panel to sample them.
Overall the panel's advice about eating cicadas would be: Don't do it. But if you are forced by curiosity, by a desire to be at one with nature or because you have lost a bet, then go for the taco.
El Chirper Taco
Of the five dishes we sampled, the taco got our top rating. It worked for two reasons. First of all, you couldn't taste the cicadas. This dish proved that if you put enough serrano chilies, cumin and fresh cilantro on any filler, saute it and stuff it in a tortilla, then top it with sour cream and cheddar cheese, the result will be something that tastes like a standard-issue taco. (This could be an unsettling revelation for anyone who loves the tacos at a local beanery but isn't sure what filler the kitchen is using.)
Secondly, the taco worked because its cicadas were well-hidden. They had been chopped up in a food processor, and when they were mixed in the lettuce and other taco stuffings, they were difficult to see. Difficult, but not impossible. When one little body part, a brown abdomen, slipped out of my taco, I stopped eating.
Rating: 2 wings
Pea Pod Surprise
This was the second-favorite cicada offering. It consisted of a fresh pea pod that was split open and stuffed with goat cheese, garlic and chives. It was topped with a cicada that had been submitted to the basic-recipe treatment: First baked in an oven, then stir-fried in garlic and butter. It posed, or maybe reposed, on the stuffing.
It worked because even though you could see the cicada, you couldn't feel it in your mouth. The texture, or mouth feel, of a cicada is not something that sends you into fits of gastronomic joy. At best it reminds you of stale soy beans. At worst ... well, let's not go there.
Anyway, the garlic and chives are the dominating flavors, and the crunch of the pea pod helps you forget about the other things you are chewing.
Rating: 1 1/2 wings
Cicada on a Stick
An appetizer composed of cherry tomatoes, fresh basil and a stir-fried you-know-what, skewered on a toothpick, was the third favorite.
Food stylists can do wonders. Food stylist Julie Rothman bribed her son's baseball team, the Patriots, into digging up cicadas between innings of their Roland Park league games. She then cooked these critters and served them to us in her home.
When she put this particular morsel on a silver tray, it looked like something that could fool folks at a cocktail party. Invite the neighbors over, serve them several drinks, then pass around the bugs with basil and tomatoes.
If the drinks are stiff enough and the neighbors not too attentive, they may never notice. If they do notice, be sure to decline any subsequent invitation to dinner at their house. Revenge can be brutal.
Rating: 1 wing
Bugs on a Cracker
Don't even think about trying dead bugs on a raft, the least favorite cicada hors d'oeuvre. There is nothing delicate about this dish. It looks like something you would find behind the stove after the exterminator visited.
Four stir-fried brown cicada bodies, curled up on a water cracker. Maryland judges could consider this as a form of alternative punishment for criminals - either serve 20 years hard time or eat 20 water crackers topped with cicadas. No blindfolds allowed.
Rating: 1/2 wing
A chocolate-pecan cookie with a cicada popping out of its midsection was scary. The problem was not so much the cicada - by this point in the proceedings we had become accustomed to the formerly bizarre notion of having dead brown insect bodies for lunch - it was the egg wash.
Cooks take note: When you brush the body of a cicada with egg white, sugar it and then bake it, the egg wash settles into cracks in the cicada's body and turns white. This results in a less than attractive finished look, namely white stuff coming out of the insect's body. It takes bug ugly to a new low.
Rating: 1/4 wing