Perfect Seafood Pairings

The coastal Pacific Northwest’s bounty of cold-water seafood and food-friendly wine is the force behind the region’s land-meets-sea pairings.


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Talk to chefs in any of the three largest cities in the coastal Pacific Northwest about the local seafood, and you will find yourself swimming in a sea of superlatives.

Executive Chef Ned Bell of YEW restaurant + bar at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver says, “We are very fortunate on the West Coast to have what I would consider the best halibut in the world. First and foremost, it doesn’t get any fresher—the most important thing with seafood.”

Vitaly Paley, executive chef and owner of Paley’s Place Bistro & Bar in Portland, Oregon, was both a James Beard Award winner for Best Chef Northwest in 2005 and a victor on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America in April 2011. His culinary passion is prawns. Here, the locals call them spot prawns.

“They come from up and down the coast, all the way up to Alaska,” Paley says. “They are incredibly versatile. The flavor that comes out is amazing—sweet, like little lobsters. I really love them!”

In Seattle, Chef-Partner Kevin Davis of Steelhead Diner and Blueacre Seafood feels he is at the seafood epicenter.

“Our mussels and clams are on a par with anywhere in the world,” he says.

When asked to list the Northwest’s bounty, Davis rattles off a lengthy list of somewhat rare local favorites: “razor clams, geoduck, line-caught lingcod, yellow-eye rockfish (you broil and eat it like lobster tail; it tastes like crab, with lobster texture). And Dungeness crab, of course! I’m from Louisiana.”

Davis concludes, “I’m blown away by the quality of our Northwest crab… if the Cajuns knew we had this here, there wouldn’t be a Cajun left in Louisiana!”

Salmon and crab, oysters and sablefish, calamari and octopus; all of these and more are available at fresh seafood markets throughout the Northwest coast. Aficionados speak of such flavors in near-reverential terms.

Seafood marketing consultant Jon Rowley uses the term “mer-oir” to describe the particular flavors of locally cultivated oysters, comparing it to the terroir that great vineyards display.

As is true in many wine-producing regions, the local viands seem to match up naturally with the homegrown wines. Northwest white wines—whether Oregon Pinot Gris, Washington Riesling or racy Chardonnay from the Canadian Okanagan—are vivid and tangy, well-matched to the briny flavors of the shellfish.

The heartier fish—notably salmon and halibut—can accommodate both white and lighter red wines. Once you’ve tasted Oregon Pinot Noir with Columbia River steelhead or Copper River salmon, you will forever understand the red-wine-paired-with-fish phenomenon.

These three seafood-centric recipes and wine recommendations are sure to bring the flavors of the Pacific Northwest to your kitchen.

Red Chili Dungeness Crab

Recipe courtesy Kevin Davis, chef and co-owner of Blueacre Seafood, Seattle

“I like to take a 2.5 pound crab for an excellent meat-to-shell ratio,” Davis says. “This dish can be made with cooked or live crab. So if you go out and catch too many to eat, this is a great dish to do with crab left over. I cook [the crab] in a little boiling salted water for 15 minutes, chill it and then do this recipe. This dish comes at you very fast, so it’s important to have all ingredients assembled and in place before beginning.”

1 whole Dungeness crab, approximately 2 pounds, cooked
1 cup Wondra flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¾ cup blended cooking oil (canola and olive oil)
1 tablespoon garlic, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon ginger, minced
½ cup fresh basil leaves
½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 teaspoon lime zest
1 tablespoon sambal olek
1 tablespoon soy sauce

Remove, clean and reserve the carapace from the crab to use as a garnish. Remove and discard the lungs and cut the body in half. Using a sharp knife, cut the legs from the body, then cut the body halves in half, rendering four equal pieces. Using the back side of a knife, gently crack each section and as well as the leg tips just enough, allowing the oil to penetrate the crab during cooking.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour and salt. Add the crab pieces, and toss well to evenly coat. Shake to remove any excess flour, and transfer the pieces to a holding plate.

In a large sauté pan set over a high flame, heat the oil until it just begins to smoke. Remove the pan from the heat, and carefully add the crab pieces. Spread the crab
evenly among the pan, and return to high heat. Do not shake the pan until the pieces begin to caramelize.

When the pieces begin to brown on one side, turn over and brown the other side. Add the garlic and ginger, followed by the basil and cilantro, stirring carefully as the herbs will pop in the hot oil.

Remove the pan from the heat, and add the ground black pepper, orange zest, lime zest, sambal olek and soy sauce. Place the pan back over the high flame, and continue to sauté until the liquid has absorbed—approximately less than 1 minute.

To serve, arrange the crab pieces in the center of a platter. Garnish with the cleaned crab carapace. Serves 2.

Wine Pairing: “This dish always makes me think of Riesling,” says Davis. He likes its versatility, especially with seafood. Washington State is the largest producer of Riesling in the United States, and it arguably makes better Riesling than anywhere in the world outside of Germany. For spicy dishes such as this one, try an off-dry style like Eroica by Chateau Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen. The wine retains more than enough acidity to cut the sweetness.

Warm Spot-Prawn, Tomato and Feta Salad

Reprinted with permission from The Paley’s Place Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from the Pacific Northwest by Vitaly Paley and Kimberly Paley with Robert Reynolds, copyright © 2008. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House.

Spot prawns, which actually have spotted shells, are harvested from California up through Alaska. Chef Paley sources his from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, just north of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, during a season that starts in May and lasts all summer. When fresh, they can be eaten raw or quickly boiled (pull the heads off first). When cooked, simply pinch the tail and pull, and the meaty part comes out clean.

1 large onion, sliced into -inch-thick rounds
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 medium head of leaf lettuce, such as butter or red oak, separated into whole leaves
2 vine-ripened tomatoes, cut in ½-inch-thick slices
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped, plus 4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1/3 bunch parsley, washed, dried, leaves picked and finely chopped
Pinch of red pepper flakes
16 spot prawns, shelled and deveined cup dry white wine
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons drained capers
¼ cup anise-flavored liqueur, such as Pernod, Ricard, or ouzo
6 ounces feta

Preheat an oven to 400°F.

Place the onion slices on a baking sheet, season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with  cup olive oil. Roast the onions until the edges turn slightly golden, about 30 minutes. Remove and keep warm.

Line 4 plates with whole lettuce leaves. Place 2 tomato slices in the center of each plate. Separate the roasted onions into individual rings and arrange on the plates.

On a small cutting board, combine the finely chopped garlic and parsley to create a persillade; continue to chop the mixture until it’s well incorporated.

In a skillet large enough to hold all of the prawns, warm the remaining  cup of olive oil over medium heat. Add the red pepper flakes and sliced garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Season with salt and black pepper. Add the prawns and cook until they begin to lose their translucency, about 2 minutes. Add the white wine, lemon juice and capers. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the anise-flavored liqueur, feta and persillade.

Spoon the prawn mixture over the prepared salads, and serve immediately. Serves 4.

Wine Pairing: “Use the wine that you cook with,” says Chef Paley. “This is a versatile dish that can work with a variety of [wines]. The prawns are really sweet, and the salad goes from sweet to salty with capers and feta. So you need a light, fresh kind of wine, perhaps effervescent. I would recommend a nice steely Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir Rosé.” For a specific wine, try Eryie Vineyards’s 2010 Estate Chardonnay or Thistle’s 2010 Chardonnay.

West Coast Halibut, Little Neck Clam and Virgin Olive Broth, with Fresh Peas, Young Spinach and Sweet-and-Sour Beets and Carrots

Recipe courtesy Ned Bell, executive chef of YEW restaurant + bar at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, Vancouver, B.C.

“Halibut,” says Bell, “is the jewel of our coastal waters—what I consider to be the best halibut in the world. I have strong relationships with fishermen. I know exactly when and where the fish was caught. Great seafood tastes fresh and clean, and halibut is like a sponge waiting to soak up flavor. This is a very simple recipe to create—wonderful for a small dinner, and also works well for larger groups or family-style gatherings. Serve it in the middle of the table with crusty artisan bread and your guests will love it.”

For the beets and carrots:
1 pound baby carrots, assorted colors, peeled and cleaned
1 pound baby beets, assorted colors, peeled and cleaned
¼ cup olive oil
Sea salt, to taste
5 cups white vinegar
1 cup salt
2 cups sugar

For the halibut and broth:
4–6 pieces fresh halibut, approximately 6 ounces each, skin removed (sablefish/black cod can  be substituted)
2 tablespoons sea salt, plus more to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds fresh littleneck or Manila clams, thoroughly rinsed
1 cup shucked fresh peas
3 tablespoons chopped shallots
1 cup white wine (preferably the wine you will be drinking)
1 (12-ounce) can soda water
1 pound baby spinach
2 tablespoons sea salt
3 tablespoons chopped chives
Juice and zest of 1 lemon

For the beets and carrots:
Preheat an oven to 400˚F.

Place the beets and carrots on top of a large piece of aluminum foil, drizzle with olive oil and season with sea salt.

Wrap the aluminum foil around the vegetables to create a sealed pouch. Roast in the oven for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small pot set over medium heat, combine the white vinegar, salt and sugar, and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and cool.

When the beets and carrots are done roasting, remove them from the oven and add them to the pickling liquid, allowing them to marinate for 2 hours. Set aside until service.

For the halibut and broth:
Preheat an oven to 400˚F.

Season the halibut’s belly side with sea salt to taste. Heat a large shallow frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil to the pan, and carefully place the halibut, belly side down, into the pan. Sear for 2 minutes until the flesh turns golden brown, then turn over the fish.

Add the clams, peas and shallots and cook for 1 minute. Add the wine, cook for 20 seconds, and then add the soda water. Bring the contents to a boil until the clam shells open.

Stir in the spinach and remove the pan from the heat. Scatter the beets and carrots throughout the pan to re-warm slightly. Sprinkle with the sea salt and chives, and stir in the lemon juice and zest.

Serve immediately, either from the pan or in a large serving dish.

Wine Pairing: “Roasted or grilled halibut will lend itself to tank-fermented Chardonnay or Viognier—wines with good body and mouthfeel, but no oak,” Bell says. He favors Dibello’s food-friendly Okanagan Valley Viognier, and notes that Vancouverites drink more wine per capita than any city in the country.
For another approach, YEW sommelier Emily Walker suggests pairing the dish with a delicate Sancerre Rouge, such as one produced by Domaine Vincent Delaporte. “The intensity on the palate of youthful red fruit and savory herbal nuances makes an affectionate match with the fresh herbs in this dish,” she says. “The wine’s finely grained tannins and bright acidity play perfectly with the fleshy texture of the halibut and the acidity in the broth.”


Six Iconic Pacific Northwest Seafoods to Try

Salmon: Always get fresh salmon, not farmed. Look for thick fillets with plenty of belly fat. Certain Alaskan runs––such as Yukon and Copper River––are pricy, but any fresh king (Chinook), sockeye or coho (silver) salmon in season is good. Pair it with Oregon Pinot Noir.

Halibut: A superb game and food fish, it has a dense, meaty texture and low fat content. Fresh halibut has delicate, clean and light sea flavors and needs little seasoning. Broil or grill it, and serve it with a Washington Sauvignon Blanc or an Oregon Rosé of Pinot Noir.

Dungeness crab: These tasty crabs are found from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands south to California. Boil and cool these crabs, then crack the shells and dip the meat in melted butter—just like lobster. A dry or off-dry Riesling is the best accompaniment.

Spot prawns: The best spot prawns arguably come from the cold waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and along B.C.’s Inside Passage.  They should be fresh and lightly cooked, with a squirt of lemon. Pair with aromatic dry white wines like Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Viognier.

Black cod or sablefish: This is an oily, soft-textured, highly coveted fish that’s similar to Chilean sea bass. It may be used for sushi, or it can be baked or broiled. Kasu cod recipes call for marinating the fish for up to three days. Pair this with a rich, oaked Chardonnay.


Jon Rowley’s Etiquette Tips for Eating Oysters

Seattle-based seafood consultant Jon Rowley is a man in love with oysters.

“We have more species of oysters here in the Northwest than probably anywhere else in the world,” says Rowley. “It’s because of the hatcheries. And the waters here are pretty darn good, so the oysters have a really clean taste to them. We have many varieties: Pacifics, Virginicas (Totten Inlet’s could be the best in the country), Kumamoto, Olympia (our native oyster, and Mark Twain’s favorite food), and more.”

“A new and exciting development in the half-shell growing business is tumbling the oysters,” says Rowley. “This creates a deeper cup and a softer shell–– it’s like tumbling a rock. It’s done with mesh bags with a float on one end and steel cable on the other. The tide picks the float up and the oysters tumble to the bottom, so they tumble in the tide four times a day. It’s very effective. They come out very sexy, uniform in size and shape. Taylor [Shellfish Farms] calls theirs Shigoku—Hama Hama [Oyster Company] has one called Blue Pool.”

When asked for a recipe, Rowley offers this advice. “Let the wine be the condiment. I encourage people to have the oyster just as it is––no cocktail sauce, or anything in the way of the wine. Chew the oyster well––there’s sweetness, minerals, salt, all kinds of flavors that go to every part of your palate. Then follow chewing the oyster with a sip of wine––that’s the condiment.”

Visit oysterwine.com for results of the recent 18th-annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. Organized by Rowley and hosted by Taylor Shellfish Farms, the goal is to find the best “oyster wines” made in America.

This year’s 10 winners include no less than six Pinot Gris, along with a pair of Sauvignon Blancs, a Pinot Blanc and a dry Chenin Blanc. My own palate would favor a very crisp Washington Sauvignon Blanc—all stainless fermented. Among the best are the 2011 selections from Waterbrook, Jones of Washington and Washington Hills, as well as the 2010 from Mercer Estates.

Learn more about wine pairing in Wine 101 >>>

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