Lionfish that is - and Dave Johnson wants to do it only on the east coast of the Americas from Venezuela to just south of Cape Cod. He and Gary Groomes are founders and owners of Traditional Fisheries. Their reason to overfish lionfish is that the lionfish is not native to the east coast and is doing considerable ecological harm. There are any number of apocryphal stories about how it got there from its Indo-Pacific home. The crucial point is, it has few natural enemies on the eastern seaboard (partly the result of its venomous spines in the dorsal fin). It eats the eggs of native species and, in the view of scientists, wrecks the ecology of the region. Johnson and Groomes want to make lionfish a staple of the American diet. Their thinking is: overfish it to oblivion and help the native species numbers recover.
When they went on the popular TV show Shark Tank, their pitch fell on deaf ears. Not scalable, said shark Damond John (how can a fish business not be scale-able [ed. - cheap joke]). Most of the sharks thought that America just could not be profitably persuaded to eat lionfish. Of course, this result could be shaded by vested interests -- sharks eat lionfish.
People have to find lionfish pretty palatable and the price right for Johnson’s strategy to work. According to scientists, lionfish reproduce monthly and so just to maintain the population in the invaded areas, people have to eat 27% of the species adult population in that area each month. Johnson and Groomes were some way from this at the time they appeared on Shark Tank as their fishing technology consisted of cooperatives of skilled spear fishermen on the Dominican Republic and in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. Since then they have added another cooperative in Belize and output has increased 20 times. On Cozumel, they have stabilized the lionfish population.
Lionfish -- How Does It Taste?
Assuming that Traditional Fisheries has the catching side down, what about the consumption side? Is lionfish practical and palatable enough to become a new table staple?
To find out, I signed up for a lionfish dinner in Dallas organised by Driftwood and T.J.’s Seafood Market. Driftwood is one of the city’s best seafood restaurants and chef Omar Flores an accomplished expert at handling fish. T.J.’s Seafood Market is where fish geeks shop. Owner Jon Alexis will stock the most exotic creatures, hand-selling as necessary to build up a following.
The first date for the dinner proved a bust when the fish got hung up in customs (apparently, the TSA complained that they wouldn’t remove their shoes). A second date proved a charm.
As service proceeded Alexis explained that lionfish are venomous but not poisonous. The venom is confined to the spines of the dorsal fin which are removed by the fisherman. What arrives at the retailer is a fleshy white fish that can be up to 18 inches long and weigh up to three pounds. The tight white fibres are like those of John Dory. Tighter than grouper, and not as flaky as sea bass. There is a pleasant creaminess to the taste but, like a lot of white fish, its mildness makes it a canvas which the chef can address with his repertoire of sauces and techniques. The web is replete with recipes and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation has even prepared a cookbook dedicated to the fish.
A whole, raw fish on a bed of ice was passed to me to inspect. The majestic ostentatiousness of its aquatic displays is gone once harvested. It is replaced with cropped dorsal spines and a pout halfway between that of a goliath grouper and Kate Moss.
Omar Flores prepared lionfish four ways. As a starter, Cold-Smoked Lionfish, Aji Amarillo, Crispy Capers, Pine Nuts, Pickled Mustard and Pedro Ximenez Vinegar. Essentially lionfish sashimi highlighted with condiment-style flavors and textures. The mustard seeds popped in the mouth, the nuts provided a brittleness to bite down on and the capers retained enough tartness to make the dish one lively mouthful. And that is before the searing 30,000+ Scoville units of heat in the Aji Amarillo hit home. I put the chili aside while I dug into the folds of white fish flesh. The subtle smokiness rendered this lionfish a piece of sashimi that anyone could love.If most attendees needed a gentle introduction to lionfish, then this was it. A venomous predator for the suburbs no less.
Flores followed the least disruptive fish preparation, sashimi, with maybe the next least disruptive, poaching. Poaching treats the sinews of flesh of the fish gently and evenly, preserving their structure through the cooking process. The Vinho Verde Poached Lionfish, Melted Leeks, Butter Basted Clams, Potato Confit, Spicer’s Carrots and Caviar presents the fish as the classic backdrop to leeks softened under a butter sauté. In this form it could replace grouper, striped bass, cod and the like and acquit itself with flying colors.
Salt baking is a classic fish preparation that likely originated with the Phoenicians. It is known for sealing in the juices and seasoning the fish during the cooking process. It is particularly suited to fish with a low oil content like lionfish. Flores served the Salt-baked Lionfish with Soft Herbs, Arbequina Olive Oil and Crushed Ruby Red Grapefruit. These ingredients were truly accompaniments added only at plating. This made it easy to pry off chunks of lionfish and confirm the unadulterated texture and moisture of the flesh. Then roll them with grapefruit and chives, dill, chervil and tarragon to enjoy the synergy of tart and earthy flavors.
Grilled Lionfish with Charred Fish Bone Dashi, Toscano Kale, Radishes, Hon-Shimeji and Farm Egg surrounded the lionfish fillet with other strong flavors and textures in a more demanding test of its menu versatility. The umami rich Hon-Shimeji (Brown Beech) mushrooms have earthy and nutty flavors. Dashi only amplifies the umami. The bitterness in kale compliments this bearhug of umami, as does the tartness of the radish slice perched on top of the fillet. The egg? Not sure what this adds to a mouthful of fish (lion or other) but it was a great emulsifier of the bitterness in the quail.
Is There a Lionfish In Your Future?
There is, if you let it in. I apologise for sounding like a new-age psychiatrist but you have to forget its predatory ways in the wild. Forget its venom. Forget its ferocious appearance, maybe. Just enjoy the succulent flesh when cooked in any number of conventional fish preparation methods. It will only be in the pickiest and resourceful seafood restaurants initially, and the geekiest seafood shops. But, like other species before it, it will take over the diets of millions of people. The lionfish, predatory - dead or alive.