The Lionfish Is Delicious
And it needs to die.
As with squirrels, I suppose, you can't just buy lionfish at a supermarket. Not yet, anyhow. To get my fish, I had to wait for a phone call from the cookbook's coauthor, Lad Akins, the co-founder of REEF, who was trying to find lobstermen who had caught them in their traps. After a few days, the call came, and I drove toa parking lot on Conch Key, 60 miles north of Key West.
The transaction felt more like a drug deal than a trip to the market. Akins, a square-jawed professional diver who is described in the book as having "eaten more invasive lionfish ... than any other person working on the invasion," drove up in a pickup truck and dug barehanded through a cooler looking for suitable fish. His brazenness made me rather jumpy: his own cookbook cautions never to handle the fish—at least not until the venom has been cooked out of its spines—without the "confidence and safety" of puncture-proof rubber gloves. Next he moved two lionfish from his cooler to mine and, after a brief exchange of pleasantries, he drove off. The dead lionfish were smaller than I expected. With their fins laying against their bodies, they looked like any other eight-inch reef fish, not a fearsome predator. Inspired by Akins, I prepared the fish barehanded after getting back to Key West. The first step was easy enough: cut the tips off all the spines with a pair of scissors. Even blunted, though, the spines were menacing. Gutting and cleaning a fish is a slippery business, so I took my time, but before long, I was looking at several smallish fillets ready for cooking. To test the as-good-as-snapper hypothesis, I turned the fillets over to my mother, a snapper savant, and had her prepare the fish the way she does fresh snapper—dredged in flour with a bit of cayenne, salt and pepper; sautéed in olive oil and butter; and served with lemon.
While she was occupied, I turned to a little arts-and-crafts project. Somehow it didn't seem like enough to just eat the fish. The beauty of invasiovorism—eating pesky non-natives—is that it's not just a solution, it's a revenge fantasy. I was doing this for me, sure, but also for all those dead baby groupers. Fortunately, Akins' cookbook suggests a deliciously vengeful presentation. Simply snip the dorsal spines off at the base and bake them—15 minutes at 350 degrees is enough to denature the venom. Then use those as orange-and-black striped toothpicks for skewering bites of the fish. Dramatic, yes, and it sends a clear message to the lionfish community: We will kill you and eat you with your own spines.
Lunch was ready. Itturns out that it's true: Lionfish can stand with the noblest of the reef fish. It has a half-mild white meat, neither briny nor bloody. Like the best Keys seafood, there's a light sashimi sweetness to it, even when cooked. Ultimately, I found it reminded me most of hogfish, which is to say, it's tasty enough to be simply sautéed but probably strong enough to be battered, blackened, or curried, as the cookbook also suggests. My kids came bounding in and, disobeying a direct order from my wife, I fed them morsels from the baked spines. They ate the entire fish that way in under two minutes. Importantly, they survived.
Akins and his fellow environmentalists face big challenges before they can create a mass-market for the fish. Size matters: you're not going to get big, grouper-esque fillets out of a lionfish. And you can't really fish for them with bait and tackle. They need to be netted or shot with a speargun, meaning that if you want a lionfish, you have to jump in the ocean and get it yourself.
The next time I'm home in the Keys,though, I might just do that. The lionfish is delicious, and it needs to die.
Photograph by by Jacek Madejski.