Lionfish are infesting the Atlantic Coast of both North and South America, including off the coast of North Carolina. The invasive fish also have spread swiftly through the Gulf of Mexico and throughout the Caribbean.
Lionfish pose a significant threat to reef fish because of their high densities and general dietary habits. These fish, native to the Indo-Pacific, are known to feed on juvenile species that are important to commerce such as grouper and snapper. In the waters of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, Mexico and the Caribbean, lionfish have no known predators.
Some experts say that the only way to manage the North Carolina infestation is to develop a commercial fishery for lionfish and eat the invaders.
Janelle Fleming, scientific diver with Seahorse Coastal Consulting, presented these facts at a lionfish tasting session at Bistro-by-the-Sea restaurant in Morehead City. Tim Coyne, the restaurant’s executive chef, prepared a two-course lionfish meal — a slider appetizer and baked lionfish entrée.
The sensory session was held to determine how well lionfish could be adapted to culinary preparations typically crafted for mild-flavored, marine white fish such as triggerfish or grouper.
The lionfish, provided by Discovery Diving of Beaufort, were speared by sport divers. Discovery Diving was a partner in a Sea Grant-funded project to test various gear for selectively harvesting lionfish in deep ocean waters. The gear options were designed by James Morris, a fisheries ecologist with the NOAA Beaufort Laboratory who studies invasive species.
Forty-three self-professed seafood lovers from Carteret, Craven and Onslow counties were recruited to evaluate Coyne’s lionfish features. The participants had been involved in a similar series of sturgeon tastings in autumn 2013, funded by the N.C. Fishery Resource Grant program, administered by Sea Grant.
Tasters rated the appetizer as “very good” for flavor, texture, aroma and appearance. They liked the entrée, calling it “excellent.” Several noted the mild flavor of the meat and its flaky, firm texture.
Coyne shares the lionfish recipes below.
First, prepare the Asian slaw.
Preheat oil in deep fat fryer on high. While oil is heating, place 2 buns on each of the 4 plates with tops set aside. (Optional: lightly butter top and bottom of mini bun and toast.)
Coat front and back of lionfish with tempura batter mix. Test oil by sprinkling a touch of batter in oil. If the batter sizzles and rolls, the oil is hot enough. Turn down fryer one notch and carefully place lionfish in oil. Cook until golden brown.
Place 2 lionfish fillets on bottom of each bun. Top with a heaping tablespoon of slaw. Add one teaspoon of remoulade on slaw. Place top bun on slider. Assemble remaining sliders. Serves 4.
Mix all slaw ingredients together. Salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate for 1 hour prior to serving on lionfish sliders.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Heat olive oil in skillet until smoky. Place leeks in skillet to heat, but do not brown. Add other vegetables and mixed thoroughly. Remove vegetable mix from skillet and set aside to cool.
Next, in food processor, add 8 ounces lionfish fillets, egg white and vegetable mix. Pulse until well blended.
Place 4 lionfish fillets on greased baking sheet. Spoon 3 ounces of mousse on top of each fillet. Top mousse with 4 remaining fillets and sprinkle with paprika. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes.
While the fish is baking, prepare lemon-garlic scampi sauce.
When fish is finished baking, place serving of stuffed lionfish on each dinner plate and top with warm scampi sauce. Serves 4.
Lemon-Garlic Scampi Sauce
Heat large skillet over medium-high heat. Add butter to the skillet. Cook butter until foaming subsides. Raise the heat to high, add garlic and cook 1 minute. Add white wine and lemon juice. Boil the liquid until slightly thickened, about 30 seconds. Scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Stir zest and parsley into the sauce. Set aside and keep warm.
Contributed by Barry Nash