As Floridians, we know about the invasive Burmese pythons that slink through the marshy Everglades or the non-native Melaleuca trees that shade out indigenous plants to extinction. But there’s another creature wreaking environmental havoc throughout the Gulf of Mexico and beyond: lionfish, with red zebra-striped skin and whimsical poisonous spines. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the voracious lionfish have threatened native reefs around Florida since the early 2000s and they are now rampantly invading as far north as Pensacola and Apalachicola. Not only are lionfish difficult to eliminate, but our native fish are suffering from intense competition.
The good news? Lionfish are delicious.
Nicolas Mora, Assistant Manager at Key West Seafood Company in Gulfport says, “I wish more people knew about lionfish because it’s actually really good!” Key West Seafood sends regular dive boats 100 miles out into the Gulf to spearfish these predators who lurk 150 to 300 feet deep, far beyond the spread and depth of the current red tide.
[Note: Lionfish spines are venomous, and can deliver a nasty sting to humans. You can ask your local fish market to cut off the spines, or do it yourself with careful handling. Cooking neutralizes the venom, however, and the finished look can be dramatic on the plate.]
When we chatted about ways Floridians can help curb the lionfish population, Mora said, “It would be great if more restaurants served it…. Grilling it whole with the spines makes for a really nice presentation. But my favorite way to eat it is fried.”
I did exactly that. Mora hooked me up with glistening, fresh lionfish that was caught less than 24 hours ago. As he advised, I grilled a whole fish to see the stunning presentation for myself. I also deep fried a smaller, whole fish in a standard flour-egg-fry mix to compare.
But my favorite way to eat these sea invaders is to pan sear them for a good crust and serve over creamy risotto with my Key lime beurre blanc. This recipe will not disappoint and you can relax with a glass of sauvignon blanc knowing you helped save Florida marine life.
The FWC has aggressively tried to manage the species by hosting its annual Lionfish Challenge 2021 “to encourage and reward recreational and commercial divers to remove lionfish from Florida waters.” This year, the statewide challenge runs through September 6 with monthly mini-challenges, recreational and commercial categories and loads of rewards and prize money for bounties caught.
Search for lionfish at myfwc.com for more.
Grilled Whole Lionfish
Yield varies depending on fish size
1 fresh Lionfish, cleaned with spines and fins intact
Extra virgin olive oil, for brushing and drizzling
Freshly ground pepper
1 lemon, halved
4 stems fresh herbs (tarragon, parsley, oregano, rosemary recommended)
Light a clean grill on med-high heat and brush with olive oil. Let fish stand at room temperature for 20 minutes and pat dry with paper towels. Gently brush fish with olive oil, careful not to break spines, and season generously with salt and pepper. Stuff the cavity with fresh herbs. Grill fish uncovered until it releases from the grates. Turn fish and grill until flesh is white and juices run clean. Let fish stand for 10 minutes. Serve over a bed of grilled peppers, garnished with grilled lemon halves.
Fried Whole Lionfish
Yield varies depending on fish size
1 fresh lionfish, cleaned with spines and fins intact
Oil, for deep frying
½ c. Flour
6 Whole eggs, scrambled
¼ c. buttermilk
2 c. Corn flour
½ tsp. Smoked paprika
Salt/pepper, to taste
2 limes, sliced
Heat oil to 325 degrees. Pat fish dry with paper towels. Season corn flour with smoked paprika, salt and pepper. In three separate containers, add flour, eggs/buttermilk and seasoned corn flour to set up standard breading procedure. Lightly dredge fish in flour so evenly coated. Dip fish in egg so all flour is coated. With other hand, dredge fish in seasoned corn flour and carefully place in hot oil. Using tongs, turn fish as it cooks so it fries evenly and breading is browned to desired color. Drain on paper towels to absorb excess grease. Serve with fresh lime wedges and chipotle aioli.
Lionfish with Risotto and Key Lime Beurre Blanc
2 lionfish filets, scaled (cut in half)
Freshly ground black pepper
Pat fish dry with paper towels. Season fillets with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add fish to pan skin side down and sear 3-4 minutes. Carefully flip fish and sear on the other side two to three minutes. Pro Tip: Avoid moving the fish around in the pan to get the best caramelized crust. When the fish is ready to be flipped, it will gently release from the pan.
Prepare risotto and beurre blanc. Carefully spoon a scoop of risotto into a the middle of a bowl. Place fish on top of risotto and pour beurre blanc around risotto island in the bowl. Garnish as desired. Best paired with a dry white wine, citrus spritzer or light lemonade.
1 oz unsalted butter or oil
½ oz onion, small dice/brunoise
½ lb Arborio rice
1 qt chicken stock or water
1 oz butter
2 oz Parmesan cheese
Salt to taste
Heat first portion of butter in a large saute pan over medium heat and sweat onions until soft, not brown. Add rice and stir until well coated in fat. Stir in one ladle of hot stock/water to rice and stir gently until absorbed. Repeat process until all of the liquid has been absorbed and rice is thick and glutenous, approximately 30 minutes. The rice should be thick and creamy. Remove from heat and stir in second portion of butter. Add Parmesan cheese and salt to taste.
Key Lime Beurre Blanc
4 oz dry white wine (sauvignon blanc or chardonnay recommended)
1 oz Key lime juice
½ oz shallots, finely chopped
1-lb cold butter, cubed
Salt to taste
Combine wine, lime juice and shallots in a saucepan and reduce volume by at half. Remove pan from the heat. Add butter one cube at a time, stirring vigorously to create the emulsion. Once the emulsion starts to thicken, the butter can be added in larger quantities until it is all incorporated. Season with salt. (Optional: strain shallots for a smooth sauce.) Serve warm.