Appetizer. Seasonal carrot-truffle soup with edible flower garden. Mediterranean grilled octopus with string beans, onions, olives, and sun-dried tomatoes.
Feast. Lamb Roulade with au jus. Filet Mignon for the sister.
My former experience with octopus usually turns out to be a sad affair, as it usually ends up like the squid I used to find at less than optimal Chinese places. Hard, rubbery textures with a bounce that would make Superball hang its head in shame…(and Superballs are made of silica, 1,3-butadiene, and stearic acid…among other inedible delights. Don’t ask me how I know about this). Generally, these molluscs are small, super chewy, and disappointing. Not at the Sunset. What arrived on the plate was jumbo-sized. The tentacles were probably as long as my index finger, as thick as my thumb, and as soft as butter. No Superballs there. It was slightly overseasoned, but delicious nonetheless.
It got me thinking as to how the texture of seafood compares to the texture of meat, both in heating and their relative tendencies to overcook. It’s universal knowledge that overcooked meat AND seafood turns out extremely dry, and tends to sit at the bottom of your stomach like a broken anchor. Some common examples we all know of is the dreaded Thanksgiving turkey, the breast meat of chicken, jaw-breaking salmon, or Superball shrimp. Hard-candy anyone? Seriously.
So a lesson in fish flesh:
Turns out, the pale color of most fish and its non-meat-like texture is attested to the fact that it lives in a completely different environment compared to land roaming animals, such as ourselves (duh). The media that we mostly preside in (I hope) is air (I don’t think you would be reading this if you didn’t…). Fish on the other hand, obviously spend all their lives in water, which is a great deal more dense than air. Thus, in an aquatic environment, fish are able to employ/trap various gases and oils within their body to counteract the buoyancy of water (basically the force of water exerted upon them). This lessens their subsequent need for tons of connective tissue, which is why you don’t see fish working out in the gym very often. Furthermore, their translucent flesh is due to its weak light scattering properties. Upon cooking, proteins denature, and the flesh scatters more light, hence, the firm, opaque quality of cooked fish. Fish also contain a layer of fat near their skin, as it employs slow-twitch muscle fibers (endurance fibers, I call em’), which run on fatty acids. As you move into the fish, towards the spinal column, the fat generally decreases, as the muscles are used more often for fast-twitch purposes (getting away from Bruce, Anchor, and Chum, in Finding Nemo). All in all, we obtain a pale, fatty fish with less connective tissue. Less connective tissue, for the hungry caveman, means even if you do overcook a fish, the flesh would never get tough. It’ll get dry. But not tough.
So why does fish flake? Why is it everytime I take it out of the pan, it falls apart? WHY? ARGH.
Constant cruising is needed in the ocean; nature has layered the muscles of fish like branches on a tree. Imagine a horizontal backbone, and thin vertical slices of muscle (these are called myotomes; you can imagine myo- (like myoglobin) tomes- (like books on a bookshelf)) protruding outwards and binded by myosepta (like mortar between bricks), eventually building the body of the fish. The setup of these muscles is somewhat analogous to synchronized rowers in a kayak. Our muscles are not designed like this; which is why we suck in the water, and subsequently have ridiculous inventions such as freestyle and movies such as Jaws. So, when cutting/flaking into a fish, it’s almost as if it’s been pre-cut for you. It’s the lazy man’s ultimate food. Doesn’t get tough when overcooking, AND it’s pre-cut. Screw microwaveable dinners.
Surprisingly, octopus contains lots of connective tissue; relative to its body size, it’s actually a fair amount, compared to land animals. That’s where Superball octopus originates from: overcooked collagen. Overcooking cross-links proteins, much like animal flesh, which results in entering no-man’s land (at least in the area of tenderness). The only way out of no man’s land is to cook the collagen low and slow for several hours to break it down. By then…the customer will have left. Brilliant.