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Food critic dishes on encounter with fried crickets

Hoang Dinh Nam / AFP - Getty Images file

Fried crickets are eaten in many parts of the world, including Mexico and Southeast Asia.

Want to be treated with more attention than Prince Harry at a sorority house by the next fancy restaurant you visit? I've got a surefire recipe for success.  Go by yourself. Carry a small, black jotter. Order a lot of food. Take notes.

If a restaurant suspects you might be a food critic, you'll get the very best experience. Which is why, of the thousands of restaurants I've visited, I always take friends, quietly swipe the menu, and go to great lengths not to be noticed. After all, I wanted the readers of my new book, “Southern Living Off the Eaten Path,” to have a realistic experience at the 70 great dives I picked.

Sometimes, though, my experience has gotten a bit too real. I've been served some stuff  that wasn’t exactly delicious. Goat in Afghanistan. Palm rat in Cameroon. Brains in South Korea. The worst?

I was at a pre-Hispanic Mexican restaurant in Juarez, outside of El Paso. Now I don't speak Spanish, but I can read a menu in just about any language. For example, I know coq au vin is French for "expensive chicken." So when I looked down at the menu at this joint, I was surprised that I didn't see any entree that I recognized. No tacos. No burritos. Hmmm.

I looked at the sides. Ah ha! There was a dish with guacamole. I like guacamole. I’ve never met an avocado I didn't like. Bueno. I waved at the staff to signal I was ready to order. The waitress came over and in my best Spanish, I requested the "chapulines con guacamole, por favor."  The waitress looked at me quizzically for a few beats and then said something incomprehensible, absolutely not understandable. I replied, "Si!"

She looked at me again and fired off another round of quick Spanish. Again, I replied "Si!" and folded my menu. Smooth, eh? She probably thought I was a local. Well, the seersucker suit might have looked slightly out of place...

Anyway, I waited.  Presently, a large plate arrived with my guacamole and -- wait for it -- a giant pile of crickets. I'd ordered fried crickets. That's right. Jiminy and his friends, dead on a plate. And of course, the entire kitchen staff was watching to see what the idiot at table 3 was going to do. So I did what any self-respecting critic would do—I ate those suckers. Down to the last antenna. All in all, not so bad.

And that, friends, is what being a critic is all about. Adventure. Who ate the first raw oyster? Who scarfed down a pickled pig's foot? Who decided fried okra would be a good idea? We eat some pretty funky stuff in the South, too.

So while the restaurants and 150 recipes in my book tend to be pretty basic (think pie, bacon, fried chicken, and the best biscuits on earth), I think you'll have fun giving them a try. Just don't order the chapulines.

Want to try some of Morgan's recipes for delicious Southern dishes?

Travel writer Morgan Murphy documented some of the best Southern food in his book "Off the Eaten Path" and TODAY's Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb get to sample six of the delicious dishes.

BENTON'S BACON-INFUSED COCKTAIL

  • 2 Tbsp. bacon drippings
  • 1 (750-ml.) bottle bourbon
  • Maple syrup
  • 1 (4-oz) bottle bitters
  • Garnish: orange zest twists

Strain bacon drippings into bourbon in a carafe or other pitcher. Let stand 8 hours. Chill the bacon-infused bourbon until fat rises to the top; skim fat. For each cocktail, pour ¼ cup bacon-infused bourbon into an old-fashioned glass filled with desired amount of ice; stir in 1 Tbsp. maple syrup and 1/8 tsp. bitters. Garnish, if desired. Makes 16 servings.

BUTERMILK BISCUITS & BLACKBERRY JAM

For biscuits

  • 3 1/2 Cups self-rising flour
  • 1 Tbsp. baking powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
  • 2 Tbsp. butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400. Combine first 3 ingredients in a large bowl; stir well. Cut shortening into flour mixture with a pastry blender or fork until crumbly. Add buttermilk, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead lightly 3 or 4 times. Pat dough to 1-inch thickness; cut with a 3-inch round cutter, and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake at 400 for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Brush tops with melted butter. Makes 8 servings

For jam

  • 4 cups crushed blackberries (about 1 1/2 qt. whole berries)
  • 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1 (1 3/4-oz.) packaged powdered pectin
  • 6 cups sugar

Stir together first 3 ingredients in a Dutch oven. Bring mixture to a full rolling boil. Add sugar, stirring constantly, and bring to a full rolling boil. Boil 1 minute. Remove from heat. Skim off any foam with a metal spoon. Pour hot jam immediately into hto, sterilized jars, filling to 1/8 inch from top; wipe jar rims. Cover at once with metal lids, and screw on bands. Process in boiling water bath 10 minutes. Remove jars from boiling water bath, and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours. Makes about 6 half-pints.

TOMATO PIE

  • 4 medium-sized ripe tomatoes
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup (4 oz.) shredded Cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 (14.1-oz.) package refrigerated piecrusts

Preheat oven to 350. Slice tomatoes into 1/4-inch-thick slies. Arrange tomato slices on several layers of paper towels over a wire rack. Sprinkle with 2 tsp. salt; cover with more paper towels, pressing gently. Let salted tomatoes stand 1 hour, replacing paper towels on top and bottom after 30 minutes

Combine cheese, mayonnaise, herbs, pepper, and onion in a medium bowl; stir well, and set aside. Roll piecrust into a 13-inch circle on a flat surface. Fit into a 9-inch pie plate; fold edges under, and crimp. Firmly pat tomato slices dry with additional paper towels. Arrange tomotao slices in piecrust; top with cheese mixture.

Bake at 350 on lowest oven rack for 40 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely on a wire rack. Makes 8 servings.

BEIGNETS

  • 2 cups self-rising flour
  • 3 Tbsp chilled shortening, cut into pieces
  • ¾ cup hot water
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract (optional)
  • Vegetable oil
  • Wax paper
  • Powdered sugar

Place four in a large bowl. Cut shortening into flour with a pastry blender or fork until crumbly. Combine hot water and sugar in a small bowl, stirring until sugar dissolves. Let cool to room temperature; add vanilla, if desire. Let cool to room temperature; add vanilla, if desired. Add sugar mixture to flour mixture, stirring with a fork just until dry ingredients are moistened. (dough will be sticky). Pour oil to depth of 3 inches in a Dutch oven; heat to 375 degrees.

Meanwhile, turn dough out onto a well floured surface, and knead lightly 3 or 4 times. Roll dough to ¼-inch thickness; cut into 2-inch squares, and place on wax paper-lined baking sheets. Let dough rest 10 minutes.

Fry beignets, in batches, 1 minute on each side or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels, and dust generously with powdered sugar. Serve hot. Makes 1 dozen.

Morgan Murphy has written for Forbes, Vanity Fair and Esquire and is also the former travel editor for Southern Living magazine.