Originally a dish of the poor using scraps and gathered wild things, paella has evolved into a Spanish classic enjoyed around the world. In the Pacific Northwest, Steve Winston of The Spanish Table gives it a regional flair by using fresh wild salmon.
ON A CHILLY day in early May, the unmistakable aroma of onions and garlic sautéing in good-quality olive oil drew me up Western Avenue like an invisible force. I was scheduled for an interview with Steve Winston, the pensive, 60-something founder of four Spanish Table stores and the Paris Grocery, and he was cookin’ up a big batch of paella for me to taste and his lunchtime customers to sample.
As Winston used his signature “spiral jetty” pattern to swirl cream-colored kernels of Valencian rice into the 14-person paellera (paella pan), he explained that Spanish cooks traditionally pour their rice into the pot in the sign of the cross.
“Paella originated in Valencia and spread from there across Spain due to tourism, ultimately becoming the nation’s signature dish,” Winston told me as the hungry horde waited for the rice to plump. “It is usually described on a menu as ‘Paella Valenciano,’ even in Portugal.”
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In Winston’s evocative book, “The Spanish Table: Traditional Recipes and Wine Pairings From Spain and Portugal” (Gibbs Smith, $30), I learned that paella was originally a dish of the poor.
“Paella was popular among local fishers and hunters,” Winston says. “Fishers used little fish and odds and ends from their catch, while hunters used rabbit, snails and the wild rosemary that they picked on the hillsides.”
More recently, paella has become “guys’ food that they prepare, then sit back with a glass of wine and watch it boil.”
If you’ve ever made risotto and enjoyed the process, you’ll like making paella even more. No lengthy stretches of standing over the hot stove and stirring. In fact, stirring is discouraged so that a browned, toasty crust forms on the bottom of the paellera.
Known as the soccarat, this caramelized crust is the prize that everybody fights over. During the final moments of cooking, Winston leaned his ear close to the paellera and listened for the characteristic “snap, crackle and pop” that signals the soccarat is forming.
Once off the fire, Winston’s paella was a magical mélange of wild salmon chunks, toothsome Valencian rice, cubed cardoons and chopped onions and garlic. Toasted pine nuts added texture, while Spanish laurel (bay) leaf, pebrella (wild Spanish thyme), green peppercorns and Spanish sea salt lent complexity and bite.
No worries if fresh cardoons — similar to artichokes in taste and texture — aren’t in season. You can buy brined cardoons, which even Spanish cooks prefer for their ease of preparation, at The Spanish Table.
Along with cardoons, you’ll need the proper paella rice, either Bomba or Valencian. Valencian is a Mediterranean medium- to short-grained variety similar to the Arborio rice used to make risotto. Bomba rice, the parent of the two hybrids that are marketed as Valencian rice, produces low yields and is not as resistant to disease. Small farmers grow it on isolated plots and harvest it by hand. As a result, Bomba rice is almost twice as expensive as Valencian ($11.99 versus $6.99 per kilo).
Because The Spanish Table features one of the city’s best selections of Spanish wines, sherries and madeiras, I asked Winston to share a wine-pairing suggestion.
“We enjoyed a Catalan Rosado the other night,” he said. The dry rosé from the Catalan region of Spain is crisp and acidic, a good choice because salmon is a fatty fish, he said. “But since the rice buffers the salmon and cardoons in the dish, you can drink something softer if you prefer.”
As Winston opines on the dedication page of his cookbook, “Good wine and food make good friends!”
And preparing the one-dish feast on a sunny summer patio while sipping a crisp, strawberry-scented rosé encourages us all to do just that.
Braiden Rex-Johnson is a Seattle-based cookbook author and food and wine columnist. Visit her online at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Salmon and Cardoon Paella
You can cook your paella on the cooktop or a propane grill, although a wood fire imparts a particularly lovely smoky taste.
1 pound salmon steak
1 Spanish laurel (bay) leaf
1/2 teaspoon pebrella (wild Spanish thyme)
6 green peppercorns, rinsed
1 1/2 teaspoons Spanish sea salt
1 jar (15 ounces) cardoons, drained (liquid reserved) and cut into cubes
6 cups water
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 green onions, including green tops, sliced
2 cups Valencian rice
1/4 cup Spanish pine nuts
1. To make the stock, trim the skin and debone the salmon, then cut the salmon into bite-sized cubes. Place the salmon trimmings in a saucepan with the laurel, pebrella, peppercorns, sea salt, the liquid from the cardoons and the water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer 30 minutes.
2. Pour the olive oil into a 13-inch or larger paella pan or skillet and heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent. Add the garlic and continue to cook. When the garlic is soft, stir in the green onions, pushing the vegetables to the rim of the pan, leaving the center bare. Add the cubed salmon; brown, then add the cardoons.
3. Strain the fish stock and measure out 6 cups. Add this to the paella pan, then stir in the rice and cook until done, about 30 to 35 minutes. While the rice is cooking, toast the pine nuts in a small, dry skillet over medium heat until they start to brown. Sprinkle the toasted pine nuts over the top of the rice before serving.
Cook’s hint: If you need to free up the stovetop, transfer the pan to a 350-degree oven for the last 15 minutes of cooking.
— Recipe from “The Spanish Table: Traditional Recipes and Wine Pairings From Spain and Portugal”