Caribbean Lionfish – Put This Invasive Species on Your Grill
Wood fire grilling is my obsession. It has netted me a James Beard Award. My commitment to seasonal fresh ingredients comes from collaborating with local famers, fisherman and food artisans. The New York Times called me the “Ponce de León of New Florida cooking.” My landmark Miami restaurant, Chef Allen’s, with its centerpiece wood-fired Lyonnaise grill has changed the way people eat in Florida forever. Grilled fish is my signature, and today I am grilling lionfish, as I encourage you to eat sustainably.
My first encounter with lionfish was at Anse Chastanet, a boutique Caribbean resort hideaway next to the World Heritage site of the Piton Mountains on Saint Lucia in the West Indies. I am the consulting chef for both Anse Chastanet Resort and Jade Mountain. Cooking local, seasonal, and sustainable is my culinary mantra.
Luckily for us, the surrounding seaside inlets are small, quiet, and colorful fishing villages. A few years back, Peter, one of the local divers, brought in a handful of lionfish with his morning’s catch of lobsters. We purchase all our fish from the local fisherman and usually get our lobster from the divers. This diver was complaining about how these little monsters were eating everything on the reef and destroying the lobster grounds. Would we buy lionfish from him, too?
I had heard of lionfish and was even aware that they were rapidly spreading throughout the Caribbean. I understood the problems they were causing and, at the same time was very curious to taste this little creature. And here they were, six of them dangling in front of me, dripping with seawater. My chef’s inquisitiveness had gotten the better of me: love at first bite. Lionfish have a firm, sweet, white flesh with a slightly briny essence. I was encouraged and enthusiastic. The experience stoked my quest for more delicious tasting local seasonal sustainable ingredients. And that quest has evolved into my newest cookbook, Green Fig & Lionfish: Sustainable Caribbean Cooking (Books and Books Press, 2019).
The story of the lionfish, like all good fish tales, is growing greater each day. These flamboyantly colorful fish with their diverse markings were originally bred in the Indian Ocean. But legend has it that they found their way over to us in the Caribbean when Hurricane Andrew liberated 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 from Florida to the West Indies. They thrive in the warm waters of the Atlantic and Caribbean and 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 more threatening than they are beautiful. Not only are they dangerous to fragile ecosystems, they can also inflict an extremely painful sting on humans. Therefore, we need to jump in and put these delicious fish on our dinner plates.Not only are they dangerous to fragile ecosystems, lionfish can also inflict an extremely painful sting on humans. Therefore, we need to jump in and put these delicious fish on our dinner plates.Click To Tweet
Throughout coastal Florida as well as the Caribbean, coral reefs are home to a wide variety of plants and animals. Some of these reefs date back over fifty million years. Many of the small reef fish feed on the plants and tiny creatures that make up the reef. In the natural course of the food chain, little fish are nourishment for bigger fish. Larger fish become prey for larger sea creatures, and so on, up to the apex predators of the deep.
Not only are the reefs at risk due to overfishing, pollution, and climate change, but lionfish are devastating many of the reefs in the Caribbean. They are eating many times their fair share of the nourishment present in the habitat. They have no predators in these waters as they are an invasive species.
Fish is a backbone of Caribbean life. So much nourishment comes from the sea that surrounds these islands. Though I am talking lionfish grilling, I encourage you to be flexible and feel free to substitute any sustainable seafood such as snapper, grouper, mahi-mahi, or kingfish in place of lionfish. The key to selecting delicious, top quality fish is using your nose. Fresh fish has a clean aroma, a little like the ocean or a salty breeze from a tropical beach.
Starting off with fresh, pristine fish is essential. Have the fishmonger skin the lionfish and remove all the venomous spines so you do not need to worry about any of this. Give your fish a good rinse under cold running water before you cook it. Many home cooks in the Caribbean often add a squeeze of fresh lime juice at this point too.
Charcoal and wood fire grilling will impart maximum flavor. Build a good fire and let it burn down to hot white ash embers. Clean and oil the grates and liberally brush the fish with coconut oil, olive oil, or butter. When you put the fish on the grill, do not move it around. After a few minutes, just flip it once and, in another minute or two, off it goes, keeping the flesh moist.
Recipes from Green Fig and Lionfish by Allen Susser
About the Author
Chef Allen Susser is a James Beard Award winning Chef. He has a passionate commitment to local fresh ingredients. The New York Times called Allen the “Ponce De Leon of New Florida cooking”. His landmark restaurant changed the way people ate in Miami forever, and effected how we all eat today.
About the Book
Bringing together the allure of the Caribbean Sea and Caribbean island life, Green Fig and Lionfish by James Beard Award-winning chef, Allen Susser, offers recipes for cooking with seasonal and unusual ingredients.