By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Most people look at the lionfish with disdain or fear. Chef Chris Sherrill looks at the invasive fish species as another adventure in his culinary journey.

The lionfish, a colorful reef dweller that vacuums up every bait species that comes close to the reef, has migrated from the Atlantic, probably from fish released from aquariums, through the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico. Alabama Marine Resources Division personnel regularly visit several offshore reef structures

to document and remove lionfish. The fish can populate reefs at alarming rates.

It competes with native reef fish species for food and is seldom caught by hook-and-line anglers. Marine biologists realized several years ago that lionfish could be a problem for the reef ecosystem and started to spread the word about the species to the dive community. Divers are currently the only way to control the lionfish population.

One of the reasons lionfish hasn’t been on the menu is the misconception about the fish’s 18 venomous spines, which are used for defense. That’s venomous, not poisonous. Only the spines cause a problem, and the fish’s flesh is light and delicate, similar to a freshwater crappie or Gulf flounder.

Sherrill has been trying to introduce lionfish to the public at the Flora-Bama Yacht Club in a variety of dishes, and he expanded his outreach recently with a trip to the Alabama Wildlife Federation Gulf Coast Wild Game Cook-Off at the Blue Gill Restaurant on the Battleship Parkway in Spanish Fort.

Sherrill brought the Flora-Bama Yacht Club crew to cook lionfish for the attendees and ended up winning the Best Overall trophy with his Lionfish Nachos dish. You’re going to have to get lionfish from some of your diver friends, or substitute flounder fillets in the following recipe.

Lionfish Nachos

Lionfish preparation:

1 pound boneless, skinless lionfish fillets

Sea salt

Granulated garlic

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Season lionfish to taste with salt and granulated garlic. With a skillet on high sear, very lightly and very quickly sauté the lionfish fillets in oil. Set aside on a

plate in a cooler or refrigerator. Make sure that the lionfish are ultra rare.

Wonton Nachos:

1 pack Asian wonton wraps

Hot frying oil set to 350 degrees

Cut into wonton wraps triangles and fry until crisp. Place on paper towels to drain and set aside.

Wasabi Drizzle:

4 ounces wasabi powder

1 cup water

1 cup creole mustard

1 cup mayo

1/4 cup sugar

Mix wasabi powder into water until dissolved. Mix rest of ingredients and set aside.

Spicy Mayo:

2 cups Sriracha hot sauce

1 cup mayo

Mix well and set aside.

Commercial hoisin sauce is available in most grocery stores.

Garnish:

1 cup chopped roasted red peppers

1/2 cup chopped banana peppers

1/2 cup chopped green onions

1/2 cup diced red onions

2 cups seaweed salad (Asian market)

Remove lionfish from cooler, slice ultra thin and split into four portions. Place a pile of wonton nachos. Place lionfish on top of nachos. Garnish with chopped peppers and onions. Drizzle a small amount of each sauce onto the nachos. Top with seaweed salad.

Sherrill’s dish had tough competition in the fish category.

Second went to Choctaw Bluff with its Wicked Tuna dish of ahi tuna fried in a wonton. Salty Dog came in third with its Delta White Shrimp Sliders.

In the game category, Alfa Insurance’s Wild Pig and Deer Tamales prevailed, followed by Middle Bay Boats’ Hare in the Dog (delicious rabbit sausage cooked a la corn dog) and Overseas Hardwood Company’s Venison Chili.

Wild Pig and Deer Tamales

Although Bob Plaster is from south Alabama, his wild game dish came from his love and obsession with the tamales of the Mississippi Delta.

“Most of my recipes are by feel and not exact measurement,” Plaster said. “Cooking is art and not science. Baking, however, is a science (chemistry) so it must be exact. Hence, the exact measurement of the corn meal batter.”

A tamale is constructed with four components, cornhusks, corn meal batter, meat filling and sauce.

Cornhusks:

You can find this wrapper at most Hispanic grocery stores. The corn husk is dry and must be soaked in water for about two hours so it will be pliable enough to wrap. Tear the coarser shucks into thin strips to use as ties for the tamales.

Corn Meal Batter:

2 cups Masa Harina corn meal

2/3 cup butter

2 cups chicken broth

With a mixer, cream the butter and Masa Harina together. Then combine with the chicken broth. Mix until the mixture starts to stiffen.

Meat Filling (half-and-half venison and wild hog):

Deer hind quarter

Wild hog ham

2 sticks butter

4 cups red wine vinegar

Make dry rub of onion powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper, cilantro and smoked chipotle powder. Apply liberally to meat. Add a stick of butter and two cups of

red wine vinegar to each of two large crockpots used for the hind quarter and ham. Cook for six hours. Cool and debone, reserving the liquid.

Sauce:

Reserved cooking liquid

2 cups ketchup

1 cup cane syrup

½ cup commercial Cajun seasoning

½ cup apple cider vinegar

2 teaspoons fresh ground pepper

Remove fat from reserved cooking liquid and reduce to about 1/8 original volume. Add reduction to above ingredients and combine.

Plaster said construction of the tamale will take practice.

Combine the meat and the sauce.

Spread the corn meal batter in a thin, continuous layer on the bottom corner (about ¼ of the area) of the corn shuck.

With your hands, take enough of the meat filling to create a portion about the size and shape of a short Sharpie marker. Place meat in the middle of the corn meal batter spread on the corn shuck.

Carefully roll the corn shuck so that the corn meal batter fully encloses the meat filling and so that the corn shuck fully encloses the tamale.

Fold the corn shuck in half, long ways, and tie with a strand of another corn shuck.

Place the tamales (open end up) in a steamer. 

Add chicken broth and water to the bottom of the steamer.

Steam at least 1 1/2 hours, and make sure the steamer doesn’t run out of liquid.

Plaster recommends making enough tamales to completely fill the steamer.

“If you don’t have enough, use the remaining corn shucks to fill in the space so that the tamales all stand up,” he said. “I actually used two large fish fryers with baskets to make 210 of them. A larger quantity is better. It takes as much effort and clean up time to create 20 as it does to create 200. So make a large number of them and then freeze them in a plastic bag. You can steam a few for whatever size group that you need. You can also microwave them, but be careful for hot spots.”

Finally, the folks in the fowl category came up with a clear winner with Middle Bay Boats’ Fried Quail Salad. Second went to the Coontainer Rollups from the Mobile Wildlife and Conservation Association, while the Mobile Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation took third with its Gobbler Poppers.

Fried Quail Salad

Jack Crosby was short on the portion sizes of the ingredients, but he thinks the recipe is simple enough that amateur chefs will quickly figure it out.

Season bobwhite quail with Cavender’s Greek seasoning and place on hot grill. After quail are done and cooled, pick the meat off the bone and add mayo, minced garlic, fried bacon and salt and pepper to taste.

Mix ingredients to the consistency of regular chicken salad. Form a small patty of quail salad in your hand. Place a small dollop of pimento and cheese in the middle of the quail salad and work into a ball shape. Roll the salad mixture in flour seasoned with Tony Chachere's. Gently place the balls into 350-degree oil and cook until golden brown. Serve over cheese grits.

Now you know why I have gladly been a judge at the Gulf Coast event for many years. And you understand why David Holloway, the Mobile Register’s Food Editor, and I have volunteered to serve as judges for the state finals. It’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make.

PHOTOS: (AWF group photo; David Rainer) Flanked by AWF members Lee Dzwonkowski (left) and Lister Crosby, the Flora-Bama Yacht Club team of (left to right) Zac Reigel, Jenny Sherrill, Chris Sherrill and Billy Highland walked away from the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Gulf Coast Wild Game Cook-Off with the best fish and best overall trophies for its Lionfish Nachos. Another popular dish among the attendees was the Delta White Shrimp Sliders from the Salty Dog team.

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