Smoking Lionfish

by Gary Carlson

I spent most of my life in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and parts of Alaska. This should end any discussion on why I am now living in the tropics. Although the weather of home is rarely missed, after ten years there are still a very few things that I grew up with, that I occaisionally get a hankerin' for. One that stands out is cold water seafood like halibut, oysters, and salmon, especially smoked salmon.

Even back home where it is produced this delicacy seems to be sold by the gram and none too cheap, but the flavor is almost irresistible for those so inclined. In order to satisfy my cravings without bankruptcy I took it upon myself to learn the art of fish smoking.

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After ruining a few salmon in the interest of quawsi-science, I got to the point where I was making great smoked salmon, and once the word got out there was a bit of a demand. I got myself a “Big Chief” smoker that could do four whole salmon fillets at once and started making runs to the Indian reservation where they had a treaty agreement to net salmon in the Columbia River, and were willing to deal with a white man at a good price. I smoked a lot of fish.

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It’s been 10 years since I moved to Honduras. There are no salmon here, just aging frost- burned examples in the bottom of the freezer at the market. Not being a fisherman, I occasionally have the local snapper dining out, or I may be given a piece of Barracuda from a friend to try, but that was about it for fish until the Lionfish made it's invasive appearance.

The ocean here is a designated National Marine Park so there is no spearfishing and all other forms of fishing are strictly regulated. However once the Lionfish invaded the waters of the Caribbean, the local authorities started allowing professional divers in the area to spear this invasive species. I’ve been killing a lot of Lionfish, and they are so tasty.

Hanging with the staff a while back I mentioned that I might give smoking Lionfish a try and brought the subject up to see if there was any interest.

“It’s gonna be tough to keep lit.” said Bugs (sigh). But back to a culinary discussion; there was a bit of non-committal support, enough anyway, to give it a shot.

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For a first attempt it was nothing short of amazing! Tasters waxed orgasmic over the flavor!

In an attempt to spread the news and share the flavors, and promote the extermination of these gourmet delights, we present:

 

SMOKED LIONFISH – A METHOD

Ingredients and supplies needed: 

Lionfish, salt, sugar, a smoker, wood chips.

 

FISH

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Go kill some lionfish, as many as you can, clean and fillet the fish, maybe start with a couple of pounds.

BRINE

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Next step is the brining. Brines are created by each smoker, and the trial and error process can take years. The brine is really the key to smoking fish, and brine recipes are jealously guarded secrets kept in deep creepy vaults, sometimes handed down for generations under the penalty of banishment for revealing the secret.

 In 2 quarts of water dissolve ¾  cup of non-iodized salt and 1 ¼ cups of sugar.

Put the lionfish in the brine, weight it down with a bowl or something, and let the fish soak for around eight hours in the refrigerator.

 

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DRYING

After eight hours remove the fish, rinse it off in fresh water and pat dry with a paper towel. Lay the fish pieces out on a grill or cooling rack and let it dry in the fridge for at least another eight hours. (Perhaps dry it in the open air; this is a project in process.)This is to form a light dry sort of skin called “pellicle”.

 

THE SMOKER

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I am used to using a “Big Chief” smoker. I had one for years and smoked a lot of fish in it. Sadly they are not available for sale here on Roatan, so as with a lot of things here, we improvise. Using inspiration from a cooking show called Good Eats; I got a large cardboard box (by the way we have a cool new big screen TV in the classroom.) Reshaping it to fit around some half-sheet pans I had, and adding a bunch of tape, I soon had a smoking type of sorta thing. Poking some brazing rods through the box from front to back provided a place to suspend the racks with the fish. Cutting a hole as a flap in the bottom allows access to add chips for smoke and adjust heat.

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Heat is provided by a small electric on burner hot-plate. A very small cast iron fry pan is placed on the hot plate and wood chips are added to supply the smoke.

 

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WOOD CHIPS

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I guess there are as many different kinds of wood chips as there are different kinds of trees. Generally soft woods like fir and pine are not used as their smoke contains a lot of creosote which is so unsuitable. Hardwoods like oak, hickory, and alder are traditional, along with many fruit and nut trees like cherry, peach, and walnut. As luck would have it, there were actually apple wood chips for sale at the local hardware store, so for the sake of expediency those were used, however   I look forward to trying some of the local woods like sea grape, cashew, and almond.

 

SMOKING

Fire up the hot plate in your smoker and let it warm up. I try to keep the temperature in the smoker near 200 F throughout the process. Sticking an instant-read thermometer through the cardboard near the fish allows you to monitor the temperature and also gives you something to adjust, so you feel needed.

Take the fish on the grills and suspend them along with drip pans in the smoker. NOTE: Lionfish give off some moisture as it smokes, and drips onto what is below. Drip pans, and covering your heat source are recommended. Cover the smoker so only a little smoke escapes.

Fill your fry pan with chips and place it on the hot-plate set to high. Let the chips smoke for about a half hour or so, dispose of the embers and refill the fry pan to repeat. "Smoking twice", or for "two pans" worked well for this experiment. Overall smoking time was an hour, to an hour and a half.

Overall eating time lasts for seconds!

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