If you really want to help the environment by eating, you may want to chuck the free-range, Montessori-educated chicken with a side of organic kale and fry up some lionfish on a bed of kudzu leaves.
Invasive species are a pernicious problem in the U.S. -- they crowd out native plants and animals, and can upset the balance of local ecosystems. But luckily, many of them are edible. Time to bite back! Here’s a short list of invasive species that can be combated with a knife and fork:
Kudzu, a member of the pea family native to Japan, was introduced to the U.S. at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. It gained popularity as an ornamental plant and forage crop, and farmers in the Southern U.S. were also advised to plant kudzu to prevent erosion. But the plant’s formidable growing abilities – reportedly, it can spread by as much as a foot in a single day – make it an effective pest. It blocks sunlight, uproots shrubs and trees, and can even snap branches and stems.
While the kudzu vine itself is not edible, you can make the leaves, flowers, and roots into an array of dishes. Replace raw spinach leaves with kudzu leaves; substitute them in for collard greens and cook them in bacon fat; make the flowers into jelly, syrup or candy. Dried kudzu roots can be ground up and used to thicken sauces, or coat foods before frying. More recipes – including kudzu quiche and kudzu salsa -- available here.
Lionfish: This South Pacific and Indian Ocean native has been outswimming and outbreeding native fish off the western Atlantic coast in recent decades. The gaudily striped fishes can start having babies before they’re even a year old, and have caused the biomass of the populations of the 42 fish they prey upon to decline by nearly two-thirds in just two years. They’re eating so much that lionfish caught off of the North Carolina coast are getting obese.
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If you’re looking to eat lionfish, be sure to handle with care. This fish has a distinctive crest of poisonous spines, which can cause a painful sting that could make you very sick. But if you wear heavy-duty gloves and trim off all of the fins, the fish yields a light, flakey flesh. You can slice it up into sushi or ceviche, or batter it up and fry it to serve with macaroni and cheese.
As with other predatory fish like snappers, groupers and amberjack, there is a slight risk that lionfish could hold the risk of ciguatera toxin poisoning, which is caused by microscopic organisms that are passed up the food chain. Last year, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration researcher told MSNBC she found traces of ciguatera toxin in 42 percent of 200 tested lionfish, but there have been no reported cases of ciguatera poisoning linked to consumption of lionfish yet.
Asian tiger shrimp: If you want to eat invasive seafood without worrying about poisonous spines, you may want to chow down on these truly jumbo-sized prawns, another accidental import to U.S. waters. Pop them in any of your favorite shrimp recipes – broiled, baked, stewed, barbequed, or served up in a gumbo, they’re sure to delight!
And then, you can rest easy with your full belly, knowing you’ve done your part at the table for the environment.