Like all good fish tales, the story of the lionfish is a whopper. These beauties, with distinct markings that look more like a Milky Way constellation than something found underwater, were originally bred in the Indian Ocean. But legend has it that they found their way over to us when Hurricane Andrew sprung free just a handful of them from the aquariums of drug lords living in Florida.
Since then, lionfish have bred prolifically, in a ceaseless invasion of our seas. Thriving in the warm waters of the Gulf, Atlantic, and Caribbean, they wreak havoc on our ocean ecosystems and fisheries, gobbling up reef fish, juvenile snapper, and grouper. With no known predators to stop them, the lionfish are far more of a threat than they are beautiful. What recourse do we have? Well, let's eat them.
One challenge: catching these things isn't so easy. Lionfish don't go for baited hooks, don't school together (which would make them easier to find and snag), and are well camouflaged against the reefs they populate. To combat this threat, Lionfish Rodeos have become a popular and purposeful sport all along our coasts. Divers spear or net each fish, bringing ashore their bounty in a celebration of sustainability that's a bit the opposite of typical conservation—eat them all! While lionfish haven't often appeared on menus along the coast, more restaurants and retailers nationwide are beginning to introduce the fish, and its story, to consumers.
When I'm lucky enough to find it, I like to use lionfish in dishes such as ceviche, or simply sautéed with garlic, herbs, and sherry. Delicious grilled, sautéed, or stewed, it's a near perfect stand-in for many recipes likely in your repertoire already. Lionfish fillets are dense, with an elastic bite; a sweet, briny flavor; and just a hint of buttery richness. Because this invasion is centered around our Gulf and Caribbean coasts—though it's creeping ever northward—my favorite preparation for lionfish takes its cue from the great conch fritters of Bahamian cuisine. (Get the recipe here.) I've added my preferred flavor profile for fish—fennel, along with crunchy celery and fresh herbs—to create a textured and aromatic fritter. The red pepper coulis, with its sultry scarlet hue and smoky depth, provides an excellent complement. This snack or appetizer is tasty paired with a citrusy mezcal margarita for an afternoon of doing good, deliciously. So let's raise our glasses and use our forks to heal our seas.
What to Drink with Lionfish
Mezcal, like tequila, is an agave-based spirit. When making mezcal, the heart of the agave plant (the piña) is slow roasted in pits, lending a more rustic, smoky tone reminiscent of a beach bonfire. I add dried crushed red pepper to the kosher salt on the rim of the glass for heat.
Smoky Mezcal Margarita
Combine ½ ounce (1 tablespoon) orange liqueur, 1½ ounces (3 tablespoons) mezcal, and 3 to 4 ounces (6 to 8 tablespoons) fresh grapefruit juice or lime juice (or a mixture of the two) in an ice-filled cocktail shaker; stir 30 seconds or until chilled. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with cilantro sprigs, if desired. Makes 1 cocktail.
The Lowdown On Lionfish
Because lionfish is so difficult to catch, it can be hard to find. Still, some larger grocery stores occasionally carry the fish, and it can be purchased from online sources. (Try finnaticfishco.com.) If you can't locate any, this recipe works equally well with Gulf wild red snapper; red, black, or gag grouper; or any other meaty, white-fleshed fish. Contact your local Department of Natural Resources to find out if there is a Lionfish Rodeo event happening near you.