Food & Drink

The lionfish: King of the ocean no more?

An exotic predator threatens the Keys

An invasive species of fish called the lionfish could change the balance of sea life in the waters of the Florida Keys.
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An invasive species of fish called the lionfish could change the balance of sea life in the waters of the Florida Keys.

Marc Gralnick’s eyes dart toward the beastly fish in the Whole Foods Market display case.

“Wild-looking thing, isn’t it?” he said.

Three whole lionfish, striped and menacing-looking, lay bulbous-eyed on ice like a dare. Gralnick isn’t scared. He hasn’t stopped thinking about eating lionfish since he had it at a Miami restaurant recently.

“I’m totally into it,” he said. “I loved it. I would have ordered more if it were socially appropriate for one person to order two entrees.”

Gralnick, who lives in Midtown, came to the South Beach store shopping for fresh vegetables and fish for him and his girlfriend. But he’s coming home with an added surprise.

Starting this month, all 26 Whole Foods Markets in Florida will carry lionfish. They are the first national retailer to carry this invasive fish, as prized for its rich flavor as it is reviled for how quickly this one-time aquarium novelty has overtaken Florida’s coasts.

Florida has started its annual competition designed to rid its waters of the invasive lionfish.

Thanks to a series of venomous spines along its back, lionfish has no natural predators in our waters. It devours any and all kinds of native sea life. And it is often spit up by everything from giant grouper to nurse sharks. Those spines not only ward off potential enemies, they’ve also deterred diners and home cooks. Until now.

Man — thanks to men like Gralnick — is putting itself back on top of the food chain.

The fish monger at the South Beach Whole Foods plucks a lionfish out of the case with puncture-resistant gloves and takes it to the back, where he cleans it and removes the dangerous spines. Only the spines contain the venom, not the meat, a common misconception the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been working to dispel, even with online how-to videos.

“Once you take the spines out of the equation, it’s just like any other fish,” said Amanda Nalley, an FWC spokesman.

The FWC is doing everything it can to create open season on lionfish.

They’ve co-sponsored spearfishing tournaments (lionfish can only be speared or caught in hand-held nets, not line-caught). And only those who plan to sell it need a license. The FWC even has a rewards program: Those who remove at least 50 lionfish and bring them to an FWC checkpoint between May and September are entered into a raffle to win prizes. Those who spear 50 before the July 27-28 lobster mini-season are entered into a drawing to take an extra spiny lobster each day. Whoever catches the most will be crowned Lionfish King (or Queen).

“We’re trying to get people excited about it,” Nalley said. “Nothing is slowing it down — except us.”

Diver and spear fisher Rachel Bowman heard the call. The daughter of a North Carolina commercial fisherman, she has been actively hunting lionfish — “conservation through consumption,” she calls it — and selling them directly to Whole Foods and local restaurants for the last four years. And the demand is booming.

“My fish are sold before I hit the dock,” Bowman said.

The reason? Taste.

Because lionfish eats the tastiest fish — hogfish, snapper, yellowtail, grouper — it becomes the tastiest fish. With the spines cut off, lionfish fillets just like another other fish, or it can be baked whole to take advantage of the extra meat.

Paul Menta is almost ashamed to admit how delicious lionfish is. A co-founder of Three Hands Fish, a sustainable fish market in Key West, Menta is also executive chef at its adjacent The Stoned Crab restaurant, where he serves lionfish daily as a main course or as a free addition to other plates. He wants consumers to fall in love with the fish — enough to fish it to extinction on Florida’s coasts.

“It’s really amazing. Sweet, decadent,” Menta says, sighing, conflicted about all the native species lionfish is gobbling up to acquire that flavor. “This is a really special kind of taste.”

The price doesn’t hurt either. For a flavor that rivals hogfish, selling for $25 a pound at Whole Foods, $8.99 a pound seems like steal to a shopper like Gralnick. “Look what I just paid,” he says, pointing to the price tag for his two portions of hogfish.

The fish monger, Michael Isaacson, hands a cleaned, de-spined whole wrapped lionfish to Gralnick: a little over nine bucks.

“Try it and let me know how you like it,” Isaacson tells him. “I’d love to hear the feedback.”

“I’m all about it,” Gralnick said, eager to put his belly toward helping the environment.

He later would send the Miami Herald a picture of his fish, which he blackened and finished in the broiler. “Loved it. ... Every fish lover should try it.”

Paul Menta’s Boneless Stuffed Lionfish

1-2 pounds of lionfish, spines removed, cleaned and deboned

4 Key West pink shrimp

1 jumbo stone crab claw

1/2 cup coconut oil

2 egg yolks

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon Key West seafood spice or Old Bay seasoning

1/4 cup Demerara Florida sugar

1/2 cup white wine

1 bunch cilantro

2 Key limes or 1 regular lime

2 tablespoons cornstarch

Rub lionfish with coconut oil. Remove shrimp heads and save for sauce. Clean shrimp. Crack large stone crab, remove all meat.

For stuffing

Thinly slice shrimp and mix with crab. Take one egg yolk and whip in coconut oil, Key West seafood spice, touch of Dijon mustard and sea salt to make fresh mayo. Fold seafood into mayo gently and stuff lionfish. Bake at 370 degrees for 18-23 minutes depending on fish size.

For the demi glace

While waiting, pour the Demerara sugar into the pot over medium-low heat and stir continuously until it first liquifies and then burns black. Once blackened, add the shrimp shells and heads and stir until coated. Then add white wine, stir, and add enough water so the shrimp shells and heads are covered by roughly one inch of water. Then add the chopped cilantro. Raise temperature and let it come to a rolling boil, thicken with the cornstarch, and then strain — separating the heads and shells from the sauce.

Paul Menta’s Garlic-Ginger Lionfish

2 lionfish filets

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 tablespoons ginger, finely chopped

2 tablespoons of your favorite fresh or dry herbs

1/2 cup coconut oil

1/4 cup white wine

1 Key lime

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat lion fish with coconut oil. Make a rub of fresh or dry herbs and rub on meat side of fish. Rub garlic and ginger onto meat side of fish. Put in baking pan or Pyrex in the oven for 11-14 minutes.

Once meat puffs up and is white, with no clear areas, remove from the oven. Move fish to serving plate. Put pan on stovetop to make sauce. Heat up and deglaze with white wine, add sea salt and a squeeze of Key lime and pour over fish and enjoy. Sauce is nice over veggies and rice, as well.

Yield: 2 filets

Cilantro Lime Lionfish

From Frank DiVito, Whole Foods Market

For fish

3 pounds lionfish fillets

For cilantro sauce

1 pint expeller-pressed canola oil

1 1/2 cups fresh lime juice

4 ounces roasted garlic

1 ounce minced garlic

4 bunches fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

1 tablespoon kosher salt

Combine sauce ingredients until well blended. Coat fish with sauce.

Sauté fillets in skillet on medium-high for 3-5 minutes until cooked through. Transfer fish to platter. Top it with cilantro-lime sauce and serve immediately.

Yield: 4 generous servings