Use the phrase "alternative protein," and most people think turkey instead of chicken. But at Edible Beats, the group that operates Linger, Root Down, Ophelia's Electric Soapbox and the soon-to-open Vital Root (on Tennyson Street), the culinary team has been introducing yak, ostrich, goat, tempeh and other sources outside the beef-pork-poultry canon — and they've been met mostly with applause and cleaned plates. But there's one protein that's still shunned by the vast majority of Americans: the kind that comes with six legs and antennae. Edible Beats founder Justin Cucci has never shied away from controversy, though (after all, he built restaurants in a mortuary and a former whorehouse), and so he's adding crickets to Linger's dinner menu, beginning January 25, as a way to introduce guests to more sustainable protein options.
And not only did culinary director Daniel Asher and operations chef Jeremy Kittelson manage to find a source for the crunchy little critters, but they kept true to Linger's ideals by keeping that source local and sustainable. Wendy Lu McGill runs Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch in west Denver out of a reclaimed forty-foot shipping container, where her insects are raised on a diet of organic vegetable scraps and spent grain from local breweries.
Linger receives packs of frozen crickets and steams them for use in a new chile-relleno taco that sold surprisingly well as a special earlier this month. The $12 plate includes three tacos topped with black-bean mole, cricket-and-cheese rellenos, tomatillo-apple salsa and batons of watermelon radish. A generous helping of crickets are mixed into three kinds of cheese — cotija, queso fresco and cream cheese — and the tacos are then garnished with more crickets that have been fried and dusted with a tangy chile powder.
Kittelson describes the flavor of crickets as "nutty and grassy — like herbaceous sunflower seeds."
"It's one of nature's most perfect food sources," Asher adds. "As far as human fuel goes, it's the future of alternative proteins."
The crickets aren't the only part of the tacos that claim local provenance; the poblanos used to make the rellenos, the cotija cheese and the tortillas are all from Colorado. Abbondanza Organic Seed & Produce in Longmont grows several varieties of heirloom corn from its own seed bank and makes tortillas in the traditional manner, using a stone wheel to grind the corn.
Using bugs as a protein source has many benefits. Kittelson and Asher point out the low impact to farmland compared to traditional livestock, the high yield per pound of feed and the low methane output, especially when compared to industrial cattle farming. The downside? Public perception — though Kittelson notes that a fair number of customers were genuinely excited to have crickets as an option. Others are drawn in by the novelty and shock factor, but some simply refuse to consider putting an insect in their mouths — including a few members of the kitchen crew.
And those with shellfish allergies may want to avoid the cricket tacos altogether, Asher says, as the insects contain the same protein that causes an allergic reaction to shrimp and other shelled seafood.
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SHOW ME HOW
Once you get past the mental image of a cricket scuttling across your table, the flavor and texture are fairly innocuous. The fried taco toppers have a little crunch, but the softer, steamed bugs inside the relleno could just as easily be sauteed vegetables. And how do they taste?
I'd say they're just a little jiminy...*crickets*.