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Jun 10, 2014
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WINE WITH…Pan Seared Lionfish in Coconut Curry Sauce

They’re venomous, reproduce like crazy, and eat every living creature that comes their way. Some scientists say that lionfish are fast becoming the greatest threat to the Atlantic Ocean as we know it. Since their native range is the Indo Pacific and Red Sea, no one knows for sure how they got to the Atlantic, though suspicion falls on aquarium enthusiasts in Florida who may have released them into the ocean when they got bored with their finned pets (or got tired of caring for fish adorned with venomous spines).

Because the only known predators of lionfish seem to be human beings, environmentalists suggest we all should eat more lionfish. With that in mind, the National Aquarium served lionfish at its monthly dinner last May. We were unable to attend the dinner ourselves, but we did procure the recipe prepared by chefs from the Bluefields Bay Villas in Jamaica who teamed up with the National Aquarium’s Executive Chef Joe Cotton.

What does this villainous fish taste like? “Lionfish is a delicious and delicate fish,” said Bluefields Bay Villas’ Executive Chef Carmen Hibbert. “It is a great replacement for grouper and snapper, which are in danger of being overfished.”

Well, much as we’d like to spear a couple of lionfish ourselves, we are not fishermen or divers. Nor is lionfish available in any of our local markets--which is probably just as well since we’re not keen on having to remove venom from our dinner before cooking it. (For braver cooks, NOAA has produced step-by-step instructions for filleting lionfish.) So we ended up substituting tilapia for the lionfish. Tilapia may be the blandest fish in the water, but it is neither overfished nor poisonous, and as our seafood purveyor said, “Tilapia’s taste is so mild that it should show off any curried sauce beautifully.” He was absolutely right.

Lionfish in Coconut Sauce

Our recipe is inspired the one created for the dinner at the National Aquarium. Chef Hibbert uses Jamaican yellow curry, which like most Caribbean curry preparations leans more towards allspice and fennel than the cumin that typically characterizes Indian curries. If you don’t have Jamaican or other Caribbean curry, you can add more allspice to traditional Indian curry powder.

Serves 4

About 2 pounds fish fillets
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground fennel
½ teaspoon cumin
4 tablespoons olive oil (divided use)
2 scallions, sliced
¼ cup minced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
about 1 teaspoon finely minced fresh jalapeno or other hot pepper (optional)
3 teaspoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
salt and pepper to taste

About 30 minutes or more (up to 2 hours) before serving, pat the fish filets dry with paper towels. Mix together the allspice, fennel and cumin. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, stirring the mixture until well blended. Brush the spice mix on both sides of the fish.

Add one tablespoon olive oil to a large, sturdy skillet and heat the pan until the oil begins to smoke. Add the fish filets, working in batches, and sear them on both sides. Cook until just done, a couple of minutes or so altogether depending on the thickness of the filets. Remove them to a large platter and add the scallions, onion and garlic. Cook these, stirring, over medium heat, until the onions have softened. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to the pan.

Stir in the curry spices and thyme, and when they are well blended pour in the wine. Raise the heat and cook the mixture, stirring occasionally, until reduced by about half. Add the coconut milk and simmer until the sauce has thickened, about 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

About 10 minutes before serving reheat the sauce. Add the fish filets and simmer for about 5 minutes, or until the fish is thoroughly heated through.

* * *

We thought that light-bodied aromatic whites would pair especially well with this curry, but found that the dish needs a more substantial partner. Rhône style whites fared best in our tasting, as they had the stuffing necessary to strut their stuff when in contact with the spicy sauce. More delicate wines by contrast tended to get lost, their flavors too subtle for the pairing to be successful.

More recipes and wine pairings:    Wine With...  
Connect  on Twitter:   @M_L_Thomas  and  @Wine_With_


Approx. Price


Bonny Doon Vineyard, Arroyo Seco (California)

“Le Cigare Blanc” Beeswax Vineyard



An earthy, mineral-driven white, with a distinct floral bouquet, this blend of Grenache Blanc and Roussanne was a nearly perfect partner. Substantial yet not heavy, it meshed seamlessly with the curry.

Chehalem, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Riesling “Three Vineyard” 2011


A heavier Riesling than most, this wine carries a hint of sweetness and exhibits a smooth, silky texture. It has just enough body to complement the rich, spicy dish.

Robert Oatley, Margaret River (Australia) Chardonnay 2013

(Imported by Pacific Highway Wines & Spirits)


A beautifully balanced Chardonnay, with bright, crisp autumn fruit flavors and just a kiss of oak from barrel aging, this sumptuous wine more than held its own with the dish. We had not expected it to perform so impressively, but drinking it certainly excited us.

Maison Nicolas Perrin, Côteaux d’Ardeche (France) Viognier 2012

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)


With a bouquet that hints at citrus and fresh honeysuckle, and a lush, almost viscous texture, this wine worked well both in terms of its sexy flavors and in terms of its rich texture, which complemented the equally rich sauce.

Tablas Creek Vineyard, Paso Robles (California) Côtes de Tablas Blanc 2012


A blend of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc, this was another Rhône style wine that paired exceptionally well with the fish curry. Though rich in texture and flavor, it carries a firm acidic backbone, giving it excellent balance--something important when choosing a wine to pair with a rich, exotic dish like this one.