We Ate Invasive Species, and We Liked It: Smart Seafood Guide’s Tasty Solution to Save Our Waters

Lionfish, a not-so-scary fish when filleted. Venomous fin locator diagram via LionfishHunters.org

Earlier this week we attended the launch of Food & Water Watch’s new Smart Seafood Guide at the James Beard House. On the menu: invasive seafood, meaning non-native fish taking a toll on our ecosystem because they spawn rapidly and eat up our native species and their food. It’s like dealing with a backyard rabbit munching on your lettuce plants: You can either let your garden go, fence off the greens, or eat the rabbit. And unfortunately for these fish, they happen to be tasty.

Food & Water Watch keeps tabs on sustainable seafood, much like the much-adopted and downloaded Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Guide. But they also look at possible contaminants (such as mercury and PCB), the catch method and the fish’s social significance. In this case, which fish might be wreaking havoc on our underwater community is also considered when recommending what to eat. As F&WW Executive Director Wenonah Hauter pointed out, “83 percent of the seafood we eat is imported, 50 percent is from fish farms, mostly [in] China and Latin America, where they often dump human waste and use pesticides and sometimes even hormones.” Meanwhile here are perfectly edible fish in abundance we would otherwise costly ship back to native waters or kill. Eating seems the friendliest road to eradication.

As we sampled silver carp and green crab, a video ran of the day-before catch of the poisonous lionfish—”the second-most prevalent fish in the Caribbean,” says Hauter—which we’d later sample too. But first on the menu was Asian Silver carp—a quick spawner consuming two to three times its body weight. It’s a meaty white fish that chef Kerry Heffernan of South Gate filleted and sauteéd with papaya and a relish of red and green onions. Chef Emilio Fujimoto of The Green Table, who admitted he was not the biggest fan of carp, was intrigued by the idea of serving these abundant local fish and planned to play around with the Silver breed now found in the Missouri River and headed for the Great Lakes.

“It’s one of four fish that China has cultivated for over a thousand years,” notes Hauter. “It was actually brought here in the ’70s to deal with algae blooms. It produces all year round and it’s been eaten widely around the world,” she says, adding that it slices beautifully, like cod.

The next course was European green crab, a tiny but mighty competitor for our native crustaceans (it even eats shellfish larvae before we can get our hands on them), which chef Heffernan says actually has more flavor than blue crab. When Food & Water Watch approached local fishermen about buying the invader, they got a dumbfounded response about the catch being better than bait. Like a tuna collar, it’s amazing what perfectly tasty foods people will just give away. In this case those crabs made a very good broth for a smokey bisque.

“It’s nice, isn’t it?” said Simpson Wong of Café Asean and the soon-to-open Wong, who came to sniff out these locally available fish for his future “local” restaurant. Found off the shores of Rhode Island (and along the East and West coasts), this crab found at least one home already, perhaps with a poached egg, if Wong has his way.

As for that poisonous lionfish—I’d told myself I’d maybe just check out the cooking demo—it was a crowd-pleaser. Carefully filleted from its venom-filled dorsal, pelvic and rear fin spines (see above), it got a brown butter bath kicked with garlic scapes and was plated with wilted pea shoots. A multi-colored, spiny, fast-growing fish with no known predators, it yielded elegant white flaky meat.

But attending chefs were most excited about the wild blue tilapia found off Freshwater Lake, Florida. Another competitor for natives, it’s now going for $1.75 a pound at the Fulton Fish Market. Due to its wild grazing habits, it is a much firmer meat than the tilapia we’re used to, and would be just the fish we want in our summer tacos. Here, chef Heffernan served it with a red and yellow cherry tomato fondue (like a softened sauteéd salad), cooked cucumbers, lovage and micro-basil. Another silky-smooth crowd pleaser, definitely not something we’d want to throw off the boat.

But the biggest sign of more invasive fish to come your way is that of a chef asking how to corral other New York chefs around the idea, “because I would put these on my menu tomorrow.” Another jokingly reminded us that years ago the Patagonian toothfish (aka the Chilean sea bass) was thought to be so ugly, a Brazilian chef he knew stuck a cig in its mouth. “Now people can’t get enough of it.”

If your interest is piqued, too, download your own Smart Seafood Guide right here and let us know. We’d love to pass on the message to our area chefs. And as it’s now more than 24 hours since consuming that buttery lionfish sans venom, we wish we had some more in our fridge.

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