Celebrating Food and Wine in the Northwest Northwestern cities such as Seattle and Portland are experiencing an explosion of new restaurants and wineries. Food writer Braiden Rex-Johnson describes why she loves Seattle, how to shop for seafood, and what makes a good wine pairing.
NPR logo

Celebrating Food and Wine in the Northwest

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/18056102/18056067" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Celebrating Food and Wine in the Northwest

Celebrating Food and Wine in the Northwest

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/18056102/18056067" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


If you love the cosmopolitan feel of a large city with a diversity of food options but pined for the fresh grown local produce of a rural setting, then food writer Braiden Rex-Johnson has the place for you. She says the best of both worlds can be found between Washington's Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountains.

Rex-Johnson is a former food editor of Seattle Homes and Lifestyles magazine and is inspired by the region's bountiful seafood produce and family-owned wineries. Her newest cookbook, "Pacific Northwest Wining and Dining," covers favorite recipes and wines from Portland, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia.

Braiden Rex-Johnson is in the studio of member station KUOW in Seattle.


Ms. BRAIDEN REX-JOHNSON (Author, "Pacific Northwest Wining and Dining"): Thank you very much, Liane. Happy to be here.

HANSEN: I'm hungry just doing the introduction to you.

Ms. REX-JOHNSON: Good. That's what we want.

HANSEN: Now, I understand you're a Philadelphian native. And Philadelphia is known for its food, its seafood, it's got the local farms out Lancaster County. Why did you move out West?

Ms. REX-JOHNSON: Well, I really credit my parents for developing in me this love of food and wine early on because my mother did take me to the farmer's market with the Amish people. I did eat lots of wonderful oysters and Manila clams and those sorts of things. But I lived there for 17 years, in Texas for 17 years, and now we've been out in Seattle 18 years. So I've really sort of divided my time in three different parts of the country and I just happen to love the Pacific Northwest the best.

HANSEN: Why Seattle? What makes that such a culinary hotspot?

Ms. REX-JOHNSON: Oh, I think a number of things, Liane. The basic thing we have is great produce, great seafood, wonderful meats. And that's the starting point for Northwest cuisine. And then we add the interesting touches from the Native Americans and the Mediterranean people and the Scandinavians, and even more recently the Asians and the Latinos that give Northwest cuisine its very interesting notes and nuances.

HANSEN: One landmark in Seattle is Pike Place Farmer's Market and you've written a couple of books about it. What is it do you think that makes that market so special?

Ms. REX-JOHNSON: I like to say that it's an anachronism because it was built in 1907 and it's pretty much the same way as it's always been due to the historical commission and the, you know, rather tough guidelines to keep it a working farmer's market and incubator of small businesses and a place where people can really try out new ideas. We have about 100 farmers, about 250 permanent businesses and about 200 artisans, and that makes sort of a very interesting mix on a daily basis.

HANSEN: So how does Seattle seafood compare, say, to the seafood in other coastal cities?

Ms. REX-JOHNSON: I think that the thing that you think about when you think of Seattle seafood specifically would be our salmon. And, of course, we have five different species out here. When we moved out from Dallas, I just didn't even know that there was more than one type of salmon, you know, salmon, salmon. And now, I live for the various runs that, you know, begin in the spring and go throughout the fall. And it's just a very seasonal way of life we have out here.

HANSEN: What about some other places in the region? I mean, how would you describe, for example the food and culture in Portland, Oregon?

Ms. REX-JOHNSON: I think Portland, because perhaps the land prices aren't quite as high, you know, I think the chefs down there can take a few more chances and be a little more daring. I think that Seattle has been doing it a little while longer, and I don't want to get myself in trouble of course. We're also taking chances, but I think you can do that a little more down in Portland. Vancouver is just more of everything. It's such a cosmopolitan city. I really think when people are out here, they need to make a point to go up to British Columbia. They will be astonished at what they find up there.

HANSEN: Let's talk a little bit about food. And I want ask, if you were going to cook one authentic dish from your new hometown, Seattle, what would it be?

Ms. REX-JOHNSON: I would have to cook salmon. It really is, to me, the prototypical dish. And in one of my books and - I guess actually several of my books now - I've said that Tom Douglas - of course, one of our star celebrity chefs - has a dish on his menu at Etta's Seafood, and it's a cold smoked wild salmon with a cornbread pudding and shiitake mushrooms. And because of the way it's lightly smoked and then grilled, it just, to me, is the prototypical dish. If you're going to eat one dish in Seattle, that would be the one that I would eat.

HANSEN: I've turned to page 34 in your book and I'm looking at your recipe for wild king salmon with macerated cherries and smoked almond beurre noisette.

Ms. REX-JOHNSON: Yes. That's another really good dish. And again, that might almost knock Tom off the block. This is from Kevin Davis at the Steelhead Diner which has been open just about a year. It opened last February and has been taking the market, the city, the region by storm. Many of his purveyors are from the Pike Place Market. He uses spring vegetables and (unintelligible) sausage on his menu. And this dish is really great because it only has eight ingredients, if you don't count the kosher salt and the freshly ground black pepper.

HANSEN: At the end of the recipe, there's a little paragraph that says cook's hint, and it's talking about the high fat content of the Yukon River king salmon, and explaining that it's going to flame up if it's cooked too fast and, you know, have a water bottle handy just in case, things like that. Can you give us a few more tips on, say, cooking fish and oysters?

Ms. REX-JOHNSON: Sure. Well Kevin brings up a good point too and that's called carry-over cooking with fish. And so, many of us out here like to eat our fish medium rare, so that's still little bit translucent in the center. People in older generations think if you don't cook your fish all the way through, it might kill you. But so far, that hasn't proved to be the case, thank heavens. So we to like to pull it off the grill or out of the skillet a little bit sooner than you might otherwise and just let it sit there. It just also lets the seafood rest. It's sort of like when you take a turkey or a chicken out of the oven and you let it sit there for a little while longer so that the juices can go back into the meat.

The main thing with seafood is get a good fish purveyor. Trust your fish monger. You really need to go in there and say, what's good today? What are we eating? And if for some reason you don't have a good experience, take it back or tell them about it, and often times they'll give you your money back or give you something you want.

HANSEN: It's recommended that pinot noir be served with this wild king salmon. Wine pairings are always an interesting topic of conversation, and your book has a wine to go with each one of your recipes. What do you do - what makes a good wine pairing?

Ms. REX-JOHNSON: I think when the food makes the wine taste better and the wine makes the food taste better. You know, that's the short and simple answer. I really think that there are certain rules. For example, I think if you have a big, heavy, oaky cabernet sauvignon, it's going to absolutely kill something like lightly poached trout in a lemon ber blanc sauce. I'm sorry, those two things just do not go together. The weights of the food and the wine are wrong, the flavors are wrong, the acidity in the lemon ber blanc is going to really, you know, have a train wreck in mouth with that cab. So I think that there really are rules that you should try to follow, if at all possible.

HANSEN: In - basically what might a rule be, I mean, if you're eating something creamy then drink something with a little more acid in it, something like that?

Ms. REX-JOHNSON: Well, you need to really consider things like acidity, so higher acid wines really pair better than things like, you know, less acidic wines, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. I'm sorry, I know chardonnay is the most widely drunk varietal in the world, but there are problems with it because of the oakiness in many of the ways that it's made. Same with cab, it's heavy, it's tannic, it's dark, it's rich - it doesn't really go well with a wide variety of food. Which is why I like to drink Rieslings and pinot gris and pinot blanc and pinot noir which have higher acidity, which cut through the flavors in the food and refresh your palette every time you have a sip.

HANSEN: All right. So what does the Pacific Northwest have that the East Coast didn't?

Ms. REX-JOHNSON: Well, we have some wonderful shellfish. And this may come as a surprise to some of your listeners, but we're actually growing an East Coast oyster in the West Coast and doing a better job of it in my opinion.

HANSEN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. REX-JOHNSON: That would be the virginica oyster, and they are this beautiful, lush mineral-finish oyster that has a beautiful little bite and just crisp and crunchy, and I could just east a million of them.

HANSEN: Okay, oysters. I mean, yeah, you don't have those big fat pretzels with salt and mustard in the Pacific Northwest.

Ms. REX-JOHNSON: No. But I have to say we spent eight days in New York over Christmas and we went to the Union Square market and I had to have one of those Pennsylvania Dutch pretzels and some freshly pressed pear juice that was yummy.

HANSEN: That sounds like a great pairing.

Ms. REX-JOHNSON: It was. No wine but, okay, we can forego the wine every now and then.

HANSEN: Braiden Rex-Johnson is a food writer and wine-pairing specialist. Her new cookbook is "Pacific Northwest Wining and Dining." And there's more information available at northwestwininganddining.com.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.