Land-based invasive species tend to get the most press. Whether it’s the pythons skulking around the Everglades or the capybara – the South American animal whose resume boasts the title World’s Largest Rodent – it’s the animals we might bump into walking around that seem to draw the most attention.
But it’s in the ocean that an invasive species might be making the most problems.
Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific and have no predators here. They were first found off the Dania coast in the 1980s and are believed to have arrived as aquarium fish released into the wild. Now they’re everywhere. And boy can they eat.
They eat many fish that make reef ecosystems work, they eat the juveniles of economically important fish such as grouper and snapper – oh, and their venomous spines pack a painful, toxic punch for humans who get too close.
In an effort to curb the population and introduce seafood fans to something new, there’s a new movement afoot to get people eating lionfish. There’s even a Lionfish Cookbook. They’re not the easiest fish to catch and you need to know what you’re doing to prepare them – specifically the part where you remove the venomous spines. But prepared lionfish have begun popping up here and there. Earlier this year, Whole Foods began selling lionfish in its Florida shops.
But are lionfish actually any good?
“They’re delicious,” says Peter Boulukos, executive chef at Boatyard. “It’s a great meat. I’d say it’s very similar to a yellowtail snapper. It has the same texture, the flake. It has a very mild flavor. It’s not assertive, it’s not oily.
“It’s very easy to work with as long as you’re not the one filleting it.”
Chris Nealon, head chef at Aruba Beach Café, agrees. “It’s white, white meat,” he says. “Food quality – it’s nine or 10 out of 10.”
Fort Lauderdale Magazine asked Boulukos and Nealon to come up with a recipe for the troublesome fish. Neither of their quintessentially Floridian restaurants has the fish on the menu, but both were happy to try. And both said the fish is great for cooking – even if it’s not always the easiest to get ahold of. “That is the challenge right now with lionfish,” Boulukos says. “There’s not a lot of product out there right now because it’s not the easiest species to harvest.”
Nealon took precautions preparing the fish – and says most people should probably just find a place like Whole Foods that does the hard work of preparing it for you.
“I used gloves,” he says. “Once you snip (the spines) you’ve got to wrap them in newspaper and dispose of them properly.”
When they’re not in the kitchen, both Nealon and Boulukos are sportsmen who enjoy time on the boat, fishing. Nealon cites the divers who go out hunting the fish – and, it must be added, who know what they’re doing when they do – as an important force in the battle against them. Boulukos agrees.
“Some of the divers, I think they’re a big part of this,” Boulukos says. “I’m a water person. I love fishing. I love being out on the water – I have a lot of respect for nature. It’s difficult. If we don’t take care of it now, it’s going to get harder.”
The Dish: Lionfish by Chef Peter Boulukos of Boatyard
with Braised Beans, Shitake, Blistered Corn, Miso Seaweed Broth
- 4 each 7 oz lionfish filets
- 4 teaspoons ground star anise
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- ¼ cup scallions sliced as thin as possible
- ½ cup micro cilantro
- Cilantro oil
Season the lionfish with salt and pepper on both sides. Sprinkle the star anise powder over the bone side of the filet. Heat canola oil in a nonstick sauté pan. When the oil is hot place the fish star anise powder side down and cook until lightly colored, about 2 to 3 minutes. Carefully turn the fish over and continue cooking until the fish is just done. Divide the warm vegetables in the center of warmed bowls. Add approximately 3 oz warm miso broth to each bowl. Place the lionfish on top of the vegetables. Add the equally divided sliced scallions evenly around the fish. Place the equally divided micro cilantro on top of the fish. Drizzle the cilantro oil with a spoon into the broth around the fish.
The Dish: Lionfish Casino by Chef Chris Nealon’s of Aruba Beach Cafe
- 1 ½ lbs. lionfish fillets (about 4)
- ½ cup each of diced red, yellow and green peppers
- 2 tbsp. capers
- ¼ cup white wine
- 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
- 2 tbsp. bacon bits or pancetta
- 2 tbsp. butter
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 tbsp. toasted sliced almonds
In a 10-inch skillet, heat olive oil first, then add butter. (This method will allow you to get a high temperature without the butter burning.) Saute the fish until golden brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Remove fish and drain on paper towel. Add remaining ingredients to oil mixture in sauté pan, reserving almonds. Saute for 5 minutes until peppers are soft. Cover fish with mixture and top with toasted almonds to serve.