The Lion's Share

Invasive lionfish devour other fish and create major problems around our reefs. We spoke to two of our favorite chefs about the tastiest ways to get revenge.


Erik Petersen

Published date: 

Oct. 1, 2016

Land-based invasive species tend to get the most press. Whether it’s the pythons skulking around the Everglades or the capybara – the South American animal whose resume boasts the title World’s Largest Rodent – it’s the animals we might bump into walking around that seem to draw the most attention.

But it’s in the ocean that an invasive species might be making the most problems.

Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific and have no predators here. They were first found off the Dania coast in the 1980s and are believed to have arrived as aquarium fish released into the wild. Now they’re everywhere. And boy can they eat.

They eat many fish that make reef ecosystems work, they eat the juveniles of economically important fish such as grouper and snapper  - oh, and their venomous spines pack a painful, toxic punch for humans who get too close.

In an effort to curb the population and introduce seafood fans to something new, there’s a new movement afoot to get people eating lionfish. There’s even a Lionfish Cookbook. They’re not the easiest fish to catch and you need to know what you’re doing to prepare them – specifically the part where you remove the venomous spines. But prepared lionfish have begun popping up here and there. Earlier this year, Whole Foods began selling lionfish in its Florida shops.

But are lionfish actually any good?

“They’re delicious,” says Peter Boulukos, executive chef at Boatyard. 

Lionfih Lion's Share.jpg“It’s a great meat. I’d say it’s very similar to a yellowtail snapper. It has the same texture, the flake. It has a very mild flavor. It’s not assertive, it’s not oily.

“It’s very easy to work with as long as you’re not the one filleting it.”

Chris Nealon, head chef at Aruba Beach Café, agrees. “It’s white, white meat,” he says. “Food quality – it’s nine or 10 out of 10.”

Fort Lauderdale Magazine asked Boulukos and Nealon to come up with a recipe for the troublesome fish. Neither of their quintessentially Floridian restaurants has the fish on the menu, but both were happy to try. And both said the fish is great for cooking – even if it’s not always the easiest to get ahold of. “That is the challenge right now with lionfish,” Boulukos says. “There’s not a lot of product out there right now because it’s not the easiest species to harvest.”

Nealon took precautions preparing the fish – and says most people should probably just find a place like Whole Foods that does the hard work of preparing it for you.

“I used gloves,” he says. “Once you snip (the spines) you’ve got to wrap them in newspaper and dispose of them properly.”

When they're not in the kitchen, both Nealon and Boulukos are sportsmen who enjoy time on the boat, fishing. Nealon cites the divers who go out hunting the fish – and, it must be added, who know what they’re doing when they do – as an important force in the battle against them. Boulukos agrees.

“Some of the divers, I think they’re a big part of this,” Boulukos says. “I’m a water person. I love fishing. I love being out on the water - I have a lot of respect for nature. It’s difficult. If we don’t take care of it now, it’s going to get harder.” 

Chef Chris Nealon’s

Lionfish Casino


• 1 ½ lbs. lionfish fillets (about 4)
• ½ cup each of diced red, yellow and green peppers
• 2 tbsp. capers
• ¼ cup white wine
• 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
• 2 tbsp. bacon bits or pancetta
• 2 tbsp. butter
• 2 tbsp. olive oil
• 1 tbsp. toasted sliced almonds

In a 10-inch skillet, heat olive oil first, then add butter. (This method will allow you to get a high temperature without the butter burning.) Saute the fish until golden brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Remove fish and drain on paper towel. Add remaining ingredients to oil mixture in sauté pan, reserving almonds. Saute for 5 minutes until peppers are soft. Cover fish with mixture and top with toasted almonds to serve.

Chef Peter Boulukos’

Lionfish w/ Braised Beans, Shitake, Blistered Corn, Miso Seaweed Broth


• 4 each 7 oz lionfish filets
• 4 teaspoons ground star anise
• Kosher salt • Black pepper
• ¼ cup scallions sliced
as thin as possible
• ½ cup micro cilantro • Cilantro oil

Season the lionfish with salt and pepper on both sides. Sprinkle the star anise powder over the bone side of the filet. Heat canola oil in a nonstick sauté pan. When the oil is hot place the fish star anise powder side down and cook until lightly colored, about 2 to 3 minutes. Carefully turn the fish over and continue cooking until the fish is just done.

For the White Beans

¾ cup Great Northern beans (dried)
4 cups water
1 small carrot peeled cut in half
½ small Spanish onion peeled
3 each garlic cloves
8 cups water
1 teaspoon salt

Pick over the beans for any broken beans and stones
Soak the beans in 4 cups of water overnight
Drain the beans and place in a pot with the carrot onion and garlic cloves
Add the 8 cups of water and salt
Simmer for approximately 1 – 1 ½ hours until the beans are tender removing any impurities from the surface as they rise.
Remove from the heat and let the beans cool in their liquid
When cool drain the beans and remove the onion, carrot and garlic
This can be done earlier in the day or a day ahead of time

For the Miso Seaweed Broth
Dried kombu seaweed 4" x  4"
3 each quarter slices ginger ¼” thickness
1/2 gallons cold water
1/4 cups bonito flakes (loosely packed)
1/2 cups soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon red miso paste

Cut the kombu with a knife or scissors.
Wipe the kombu with a damp paper towel to remove dust and excess salt.
Place the water, kombu, and ginger in a pot and bring to a simmer.
Simmer until the kombu until it can be easily pierced with your thumb nail approximately 20       minutes
Remove the kombu and discard
Remove the pot from the heat and add the bonito flake.
Let the bonito flakes settle to the bottom of the pot approximately 1 minute
Strain the broth through a fine mesh strainer
Add all other ingredients and mix well to combine and dissolve the miso.
The broth can be made earlier in the day and reheated
*Reserve the extra broth for a great soup base.

For the Herb Oil
½ cup cilantro leaves (firmly packed)
½ cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon chopped garlic
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth scraping down the sides of the blender as necessary.

For the vegetables
2 teaspoons roasted peanut oil
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons minced ginger (peeled)
1 cup ¼”x ¼” diced carrots
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon Canola oil
2 teaspoons butter
1 cup corn kernels (fresh off the cob)
1 cup baby shitake mushrooms
Salt and pepper to taste

Add the peanut and sesame oil to a sauté pan and heat
When the oil is hot add the ginger and cook until fragrant stirring often
Add the carrots, salt and pepper, lower the heat
Cover the pan with a lid and cook the carrots until just tender stirring often
Cook for approximately 10 – 12 minutes and reserve

In another sauté pan heat canola oil and butter until very hot but not smoking
Add the corn and shitake mushrooms salt and pepper
Continue to cook over high heat stirring often until the corn is blistered and lightly colored.
The mushrooms should be cooked through and tender as well.

Add the carrots and the white beans and heat until warm

Warm Bowls
¼ cup Scallions sliced as thin as possible
½ cup Micro cilantro
Cilantro oil

Divide the warm vegetables in the center of the warm bowls
Add approximately 3oz warm miso broth to each bowl
Place the Lionfish on top of the vegetables
Add the equally divided sliced scallions evenly around the fish
Place the equally divided micro cilantro on top of the fish
Drizzle the cilantro oil with a spoon into the broth around the fish