Friday, March 18, 2016

Serving The Snakehead

It has the face of a fearsome python, but with bigger, sharper teeth.  It swims and is considered a fish, but it can also breathe out of water.  It feeds on frogs, fish, reptiles, crustaceans, and sometimes even small mammals and birds.  Meet the snakehead, coming soon to a fish market near you.

Snakeheads have made headlines over the last year as an invasive species bearing down on our local rivers with nightmarish results.  They have no natural predators and outcompete many native species for prey.  There was recently a rallying call from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Chesapeake Bay Program to "eat more snakehead", their flesh being a delectable mix of firm white meat and fatty, rich flavor.  There was an issue, though: Catching the snakehead proved to be an exhaustive and problematic enterprise.  Most went after the fish with bow and arrow or hook and line, meaning that harvesting the fish commercially was a slow, expensive process.  In turn, the market prices for snakehead were often too high for anyone to take a chance on a non-recognizable species.

That is, until now.  Fishermen targeting another invasive species, the wild blue catfish, have been hauling in snakehead with their catch.  Think of it as two very bad birds with one stone, or in this case I should say hoop net.  Hoop nets are stationary nets set to the bottom of a body of water with bait at the tail end of the net.  The fish swim in but don't swim out.  It's an ancient, but efficient, way to catch fish, especially in Maryland.

With the impending influx of snakehead into the market, prices have decreased by over 50%, making this juicy fiend affordable at the restaurant and dinner table.  Their firm meat can be grilled, sautéed, fried, or baked and it has a tendency not to dry out.  You most likely will want to take the skin off and I recommend a curry, creole or spicy flair to your seasoning.

The name and face of these creatures can be unappealing, but I foresee that once the juicy white meat is presented in fillet form, many will have no reservations considering the toothsome snakehead for dinner.  The world of seafood isn't known for its beauty contests.  That's a main reason why you may be hard pressed to see whole fish displays adorning your local market.  However, many of the most delicious bites come from the ugliest sources.  If you are in the market for some healthy, sustainable, delicious seafood, help out your local waters and give snakehead a try.

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