By Sara Bonisteel, Epicurious.com
If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em.
That was the unspoken mantra last week at the James Beard House, which played host to a school of invasive seafood, in the hopes that these fish and crustaceans might become the next daily special at your local hangout.
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Asian carp, the bane of Midwestern fish and wildlife officials who've been battling to keep them out of the Great Lakes, were on the menu. So were lionfish, natives of the Indian Ocean that can be now be found off the coast of the Eastern Seaboard from Florida to North Carolina.
"If consumers are going to eat these fish ... we have to make them a little sexy, we have to rename them, and we need to talk about their flavors, and we need chefs to put them on their tasting menus," said Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, a Washington D.C. environmental group that sponsored the event.
The group enlisted the aid of Kerry Heffernan, the executive chef of South Gate restaurant off New York's Central Park, who found delicious ways to serve the carp and lionfish, as well as green crabs and wild or blue tilapia.
"It's very unusual that we as chefs get to encounter what amounts to new species," Heffernan said.
The biggest of the fish, the Asian or silver carp, has a complex bone structure that makes preparing it a challenge. "It is like someone designed a bone structure around not being able to access flesh," he said.
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While commercial processors cut it into chopped fish, Heffernan took a French approach to find slivers of clean boneless meat, which he seared and cured into an escabeche."The Asian carp is a very sweet, very mild [fish], I guess similar to another carp, but it's really almost like a lake whitefish."
Lionfish have poisonous spines, so they have to be removed before preparing the fish.
"The lionfish has no counterpart except that it's a little bit like a cross between a John Dory and a monkfish--a John Dory has that sort of same bone structure. It's a bit more delicate, and it is closer to monkfish in firmness," said Heffernan, who chose to saute the fish to show off that texture.
Green crabs have been used as bait by the fisherman of New England for decades. Heffernan used it in soup and found it more flavorful than blue crabs.
The real surprise for Heffernan was the wild or blue tilapia, which has invaded the freshwater lakes of Florida. It has a less muddy flavor than its farm-raised counterpart.
"The kind of quiet star for me was the blue tilapia," he said, noting its firmer, moist musculature. "You can actually slice it after it's cooked."
Getting chefs and diners excited about these pesky creatures is the point.
"The Chilean sea bass, which is now being overfished, was the Patagonian toothfish, and it's a mighty ugly fish, so I think that gives us a lot of hope for these invasive species," Hauter said. "We want to create a market, and we want to have some choices for local wild fish."
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Photos: Sara Bonisteel