From net to table, no-one knows more about catching, cooking and eating salmon than La Donna Gundersen. A commercial fisherwoman in Alaska, she has just released her new cookbook, Salmon, Desserts & Friends. During the summer, while working 18+ hours a day side by side with her husband, Ole, on their fishing boat, she needs to prepare meals on the fly. She and Ole eat salmon five times a week, sometimes twice a day. The inventive, scrumptious meals she fixes for them form the basis for the book. It contains 54 fabulous salmon recipes, many of which can be fixed in 30 minutes or less, and some favorite dessert recipes.
Lisa Samuelson recently sat down with LaDonna to learn more about the cookbook and her life as a commercial fisherwoman.
Why did you write the book?
During the peak of the salmon fishing season the day starts at 1:30 a.m. and it’s often 10 or 11 p.m. before we go to bed. There’s barely enough time some days to eat, let alone to find 15-20 minutes to fix a meal. Yet I refuse to serve ‘heat and eat’ pre-prepared meals. Ole and I like healthy food and fresh flavors. Just because we’re on a boat doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice. Or give up on taste or that the recipes are full of mayonnaise or cream cheese. A little creativity and planning ahead is all it takes to have plenty of scrumptious meals, even though there’s no supermarket at sea! Over the years I’ve developed a repertoire of quick-and-easy recipes using easy-to-find ingredients and I wanted to share those.
The second reason is that through the years when giving salmon as a gift more often than not people ask, “What do I do with it” and “How do I eat it.” I’m sure people in Seattle don’t have that problem, but in Ketchikan, we are often stopped by bewildered tourists asking how to cook their just-purchased canned or smoked salmon. So I wrote the book because I want people to be able to enjoy the dazzling flavors of salmon and to be able to cook it easily, happily and quickly. And for those who are not as fortunate as we are in the Pacific Northwest to have access to wild Pacific salmon, I’ve included 24 recipes using canned salmon.
And finally, I hope the book will be more than just a collection of great recipes. I’ve included fishing stories and gorgeous photos that Ole took, and hope it will give readers a glimpse into the world of salmon fishing and life in Alaska.
If you could give readers only one tip about cooking salmon, what would it be?
Don’t overcook it. There is only one way to cook fish – quickly! Nothing is worse than overcooked fish – it is tough, dry, and unappetizing. Even the tastiest sauce won’t save fish from being terrible if it’s overcooked. One rule to remember is that fish continues to cook after it has been removed from the heat. Measure the thickest part of the fish and plan on a cooking time of 8 to 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Watch the color change as the fish is cooking. Raw fish is translucent; cooked fish is opaque.
Which are your favorite recipes?
That’s not a fair question! They’re all my children. What I can tell you is that the Brown Sugar Glazed Salmon makes Ole swoon, and can be prepared in 20 minutes. And I take the Salmon Salad Wonton Cups with Ginger Lime Dressing to parties all the time and there’s never a single one left. Everyone thinks I spent a lot of time making them because they look so complicated. The Cheddar and Smoked Salmon Mini Frittatas are my favorite contribution when invited to a dock party. They work equally well for an hors d’oeuvre or for breakfast. Make them in a mini muffin pan for hors d’oeuvres and a regular muffin pan for the breakfast version. The Baked Mediterranean Salmon Casserole combines all the flavors we love: garlic, portabella mushrooms, and artichokes. This dish makes the perfect leftover.
I’d say look through the book and start with what speaks to you. Which dishes contain your favorite ingredients? Choose one of those recipes. It’s hard to go wrong as cooking and eating salmon is about as good as it gets. Top it off with a wonderful dessert and you have pure bliss. Which is why the book also contains some of our favorite dessert recipes. The Sweet Potato Pecan Pie would be great for Thanksgiving.
What changes have you seen in your years of fishing?
We catch more fish now than when we first started 24 years ago. This is thanks to Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) management style that is envied by the whole world. Alaska yields nearly 6 billion pounds of seafood a year (50% of what’s produced in the United States) and is the only state whose constitution explicitly mandates that all fisheries are maintained on the sustainable yield principle.
Is farmed salmon really so bad?
Where do I start? I would never feed it to my family. I feel it is wrong in so many ways. First there are the health consequences such as the red dye; and farmed salmon receive more antibiotics per pound than commercial chickens. They are bathed in chemicals because of the disease and parasites in the net pens. The fish carcasses are ground up and mixed with the food pellets they eat.
Then there are the environmental concerns: it takes three times more protein to feed a farmed salmon than a wild salmon. Which cause a net loss in the world’s food supply. The dead zones under the net pens equals pollution in our oceans.
Escapement into the wild streams. Wild salmon as they approach the spawning grounds stop eating. Farm salmon eat all the way into the streams, eating the small fry coming out. Farmed salmon are sterile. Norway’s wild salmon stock has been completely destroyed because of escaping farmed salmon.
In a nut shell…buying farmed salmon over wild salmon will ensure no wild salmon runs for the future of our grandchildren.
What do you love most about your summers fishing?
Watching the sun come up and go down every day during the summer and feeling so alive and aware.
It is a magical moment when the sun is setting and the sky is painted different shades of orange, yellow and red. You look around and see a pod of killer whales feeding with their young. And nothing beats catching a boatload of salmon in flat calm water working alongside my best friend. Or seeing all the wildlife and knowing that some people would give their left arm to see what we get to see. There is a saying, the worst day of fishing in Alaska beats the best day of work anywhere.