A recent meal at Whole Foods' Grill at Green Hills brought up a question of culinary terminology that would make William Safire salivate. At issue was the catch of the day, a $12 seared tuna with sesame crust. What I had in mind was a quivering purplish-pink cut of cool buttery fish, accented by a thin caramelized patina from a brief run-in with the pan surface. What arrived instead was a gray block of fish, heated evenly throughout and pulling apart into thick sheets of overcooked tissue.
How could it have gone so wrong?
One hypothesis points to a misunderstanding of the word "sear." Sear is one of those magical words that means two things that are virtually antithetical. (Cleave, which means both to cling to and to separate, is one such word whose versatility renders it almost useless. Sanction is another.)
In the case of sear, the various definitions are:
1) to burn, scorch, mark or injure with or as if with sudden application of intense heat
2) to make withered and dry
While these definitions are not opposites per se, when it comes to cooking, they might as well be. In the case of tuna, seared (definition 1) is appetizing, while seared (definition 2) is not.
Unfortunately, the Grill at Green Hills is not the only offender. All too often, fish--especially tuna and salmon--billed as seared is actually cooked to within an inch of its life. You might even say that properly seared fish is very rare.