For Alaska couple, salmon is the flavor of life

If anyone should know about cooking salmon, it’s LaDonna and Ole Gundersen.

The couple has fished Alaska salmon for 24 years and typically dine on the iconic Northwest fish about five times a week, sometimes twice a day. As chief deckhand and cook on their 32-foot boat, LaDonna Rose, LaDonna has churned out literally thousands of salmon meals over the past couple of decades, creating and tweaking recipes in her boat’s tiny galley.

The result of those efforts is “Salmon, Desserts & Friends” ($18.95), a self-published new collection of more than 50 salmon recipes, along with tips on selecting and preparing salmon, and lists of must-have galley ingredients and tools, and sidebars on topics such as salty superstitions and sustainable fishing.

The recipes are accompanied by luscious Alaska scenery shots, images of life aboard the boat and mouth-watering salmon photos taken by Ole, who will be appearing with LaDonna at four book signing events this week, starting tomorrow, Nov. 16, in Port Townsend (details below).

LaDonna and Ole aboard their boat.

The couple got the idea to collaborate on a cookbook after stopping in small Alaskan towns to shop and repeatedly overhearing bewildered customers in tourist shops asking clerks how to cook the canned salmon they were buying.

“There really weren’t any cookbooks or recipes around to tell them what to do with canned salmon,” LaDonna says.

She and Ole decided to put together a book of 24 recipes for canned salmon, one for each tin in a case. But as Ole started taking photos of LaDonna’s many other salmon dishes, she decided the cookbook should also include recipes for fresh and smoked salmon. And since she loves desserts, she figured she’d include recipes for a few of her favorites.

The salmon recipes are designed to be made with minimal equipment and easy-to-find ingredients. But boring they are not.

Some of the recipes are ideal for boating potlucks or make-ahead meals, like Cheddar and Smoked Salmon Mini-Fritattas or Baked Mediterranean Salmon Casserole. There are recipes fancy enough for company, like Sesame Roasted Salmon with Sweet and Spicy Rhubarb Sauce or Hazelnut-Encrusted Wild Salmon Fillets.

And since there isn’t always time for sit-down meals during the fishing season, the book includes a chapter on “mug-ups,” small bites intended to hold you over until the next big meal. The recipes are simple but nice enough to be served as hors d’oeuvres. Desserts include homey favorites such as Lemon Meringue Pie, Sweet Potato Pecan Pie and a British Columbia specialty: Nanaimo Bars.

Not surprisingly, the Gundersens are unequivocally opposed to fish farming, which is illegal under Alaska law. The growth of U.S. fish farms in the 1980s was initially seen as a competitive threat, driving down the prices once commanded by wild fish. But in recent years, Ole says, increasing awareness about the negative impacts of fish farming has prompted more consumers to opt for wild salmon.

“If anything, it’s kind of helped our market, because more and more people around the world are aware,” he says. “It’s actually done us a favor.”

For LaDonna, who was born in California and raised in a family that didn’t eat seafood, salmon was practically a foreign cuisine before she met Ole while waitressing in a Poulsbo pizza restaurant. LaDonna was called to wait on his table, since she was the only one working who was 21 and could serve him a beer.

“He put the hook out, snagged me and the rest is history,” she says.

The couple typically fishes for 14 or 15 weeks a year.

LaDonna didn’t cook much then, and neither did Ole. When they first went fishing together, they stocked the galley with prepared and packaged foods: canned stew and chili, Spam, Twinkies.

Onboard, LaDonna got sicker and sicker. She finally started looking at ingredient labels and saw one common denominator, MSG, that she suspected was making her ill. She tossed the prepared foods and started learning how to cook, with help from Ole’s mother.

Over the years, LaDonna developed a collection of recipes for salmon dishes made with fresh ingredients available at small Alaskan grocery stores, and others using canned ingredients for when their supplies of produce and other perishables ran out.

She takes the same approach to cooking when she’s on land, avoiding recipes that take a long time to prepare and create a mess.

“People have asked me if I cooked in an Easy Bake Oven when I was growing up,” LaDonna says, laughing. “I did. I don’t know if that’s what inspired me to do this, but I can do small-space cooking really easily.”

While suitable for cooking in small spaces, her recipes are also convenient for busy moms, she says.

“Mothers need healthy, nutritious recipes that they can put together quickly and not have a huge mess so they can spend more time with their families.”

Spending time together is something the Gundersens seem to never tire of. They recently celebrated their 25th anniversary with a trip to the Napa Valley, complete with a limo ride and a dozen red roses from Ole.

LaDonna cooking aboard the LaDonna Rose, the couple’s 32-foot boat.

They chose their boat partly because the galley opens onto the deck, where Ole works while LaDonna cooks. They’re in constant communication, and if he gets swamped she throws her rain gear on and goes out to help him. They spend about 14 or 15 weeks in the summer fishing and often don’t come into town for the entire time.

During the off-season, they spend time at their condo in Ketchikan and the house they own in Florence, Oregon. And yes, they even eat salmon when they’re not fishing. Dining at a favorite restaurant in Florence, LaDonna asked if they could make the crab-encrusted halibut on the menu with salmon instead. The dish has since been added to the menu.

Don’t they ever get tired of salmon? Both say no. Crab, yes, but not salmon. They’ll eat salmon straight out of the jar for breakfast, maybe with some fruit and a toasted bagel. In the early days they’d eat pink and chum, but once LaDonna tried sockeye there was no going back. That’s all she’ll eat now.

Both have their favorite ways to prepare salmon. Ole tops it with chopped butter and brown sugar and bakes it, while LaDonna likes to combine two recipes in the cookbook, coating the salmon with hazelnuts and lime zest, panfrying it and topping it with a pesto cream sauce.

“That’s my favorite,” she says. “That’s the way to go, right there.”

“Salmon, Desserts & Friends” is available at select Northwest stores and through Amazon. Sample recipes are available at www.ladonnarose.com. Follow LaDonna on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/ladonnarosecooks

LaDonna and Ole Gundersen will be at the following book signings:

  • Wednesday, Nov. 16 – noon to 1:30 p.m. in the chandlery at the Northwest Maritime Center, 431 Water St., Port Townsend.
  • Thursday, Nov. 16 – 3 to 5 p.m. at SeaBear Smokehouse, 605 30th St., Anacortes
  • Friday, Nov. 18 – 1 to 3 p.m. at the Pacific Marine Expo at CenturyLink Event Center (previously Qwest Field Event Center)
  • Saturday, Nov. 19 – noon to 2 p.m. at Pacific Chef kitchenware store, 1210 11th St., Bellingham

4 Responses to For Alaska couple, salmon is the flavor of life

  1. lauri keane-murphy June 7, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

    Hi Ladonna! We met last December on Napili Bay, Maui – my son, his girlfriend and I had just come from lunch at the little restaurant on the beach. I had been married the previous day.
    I just wanted to let you know how nice it was to meet you and your husband, (you are so beautiful – cheerful, fun, and obviously very healthy!) and that I am ordering 2 of your cook books for my son and myself. He has a new place with his wonderful gal, and they both love to cook. They both were pretty excited to meet you ~ I know they will be almost as excited to receive your fabulous book, “Salmon, Desserts and Friends – as they love all three!
    I also want to thank you for the invaluable information regarding farm-raised vs wild caught salmon. With all of the talk about Omega 3’s these days, its great to know the tastiest, safest way to include them in our diets. Oh – idea! I need to order a book for my
    husband’s doctor, and one for my future mother-in-law – she is an Alaskan native, and very interested in nutrition. Would it be at all possible to get you to sign my books? It would make the gifts so much more special! =)
    Perhaps we will run into each other again some day on Maui (or Florence, Oregon. We live near Eugene and visit often). We plan to return to Maui each year to celebrate our anniversary, December 12. We got a late start in our relationship; hopefully, with some help from the Omega 3’s we’ll be getting from trying your delicious sounding recipes for wild salmon, we’ll stay healthy to enjoy the NEXT 50 years – together this time!
    Best of luck!

    • LaDonna Rose June 8, 2013 at 2:10 pm #

      Thank you for the wonderful compliment! Go to my website: http://www.ladonnarose.com and email me from there, we can exchange information and I will do my best to get you signed copies.

      Best Fishes, LaDonna

  2. Carolyn November 15, 2011 at 7:55 pm #

    This was such an interesting story as I am a huge lover of salmon.
    I think this is a must have book, hmm, I need to put it on my Christmas wish list!I really think this would be a lovely book to own.

    • Rob Davison November 19, 2011 at 2:57 pm #

      That was a well written and interesting story. I am another fan of salmon and now you helped make my Christmas shopping a lot easier.

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