Chef Kathy Gunst Brings Recipes From Alaska

Aug 2, 2013
Originally published on August 5, 2013 10:09 am

Here & Now resident chef Kathy Gunst traveled to Alaska to learn about the cuisine of our northernmost state from chef Kirsten Dixon at Tutka Bay Wilderness Lodge in Alaska.

The state has a short, intense growing season — only 100 days or so — but during those hundred days there is almost continual sunlight, which makes for large, bountiful produce.

Kathy sampled the famed Alaskan salmon, which is popular not only with people, but also Alaska’s bear population (see slideshow above).

She shares five recipes — three of Kirsten Dixon’s and two of her own:

  1. Grilled Salmon with Maple Glaze and Sea Salt
  2. Alaska Salmon Burgers (two variations)
  3. Alaska Salmon Curry
  4. Homemade Blueberry Jam
  5. Blueberry Pie

Grilled Salmon with Maple Glaze and Sea Salt

(printer-friendly PDF of all five recipes)

From “Notes from a Maine Kitchen” by Kathy Gunst (Down East Books)

Kathy’s Note: I am not a big fan of sweet sauces on fish. So you wouldn’t think I would create a recipe for maple-glazed salmon. But the balance of rich oily salmon balanced by sweet maple syrup and coarse sea salt and fresh ground pepper works. The recipe is deceptively simple: maple syrup is simmered down to a thick glaze and then brushed onto salmon filets. Coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper go on top and the whole thing is placed under the broiler or on the grill. The salmon is basted twice with the reduced syrup. The result: moist salmon with a sweet and slightly salty glaze. Serve with basmati rice or couscous or for brunch with fried eggs, biscuits, muffins or crusty bread.


6 tablespoons maple syrup

1 teaspoon olive oil

Two 6 to 8 ounce salmon filets, or 1 pound salmon cut into two pieces, look for wild salmon

About 1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Generous sprinkle coarsely ground black pepper


Place the syrup in a small saucepan and place over very low heat. Simmer for about 7 to 10 minutes, or until the syrup is thickened, and almost reduced by half.

Spread the oil along the bottom of a medium size rimmed baking sheet or gratin dish. Place the fish on top, skin side down. Using a pastry brush or the back of a spoon, lightly brush half the syrup on top of the fish. (If you reduced the syrup and it has “hardened” you’ll need to reheat it over very low heat again to liquefy it and make it easy to work with.) Sprinkle the salt and pepper on top and gently press the salt crystals and pepper into the syrup so they stick.

Preheat the broiler. Alternately you can heat a gas or charcoal grill and place a grill tray on it (a small perforated grill device that lets you grill something without having it stick). Let the grill get hot, about 400 degrees. Place the fish about 4 inches under the broiler or place on the hot grill. Cook for 5 minutes. Brush the remaining syrup on top and grill another 4 to 5 minutes, or until just cooked through. Remove from the heat and serve hot.

Serves 2.

Alaska Salmon Burgers

From “The Winterlake Lodge Cookbook: Culinary Adventures in the Alaskan Wilderness” by Kirsten Dixon (Alaska Northwest Books)

Kirsten’s Note: As you might imagine, after thirty years of cooking salmon burgers, we’ve tried a few variations. Here are two that are favorites.

Ingredients for Variation #1:

1 pound boneless, skinless Alaska salmon

1/2 small red onion, minced

1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced

1/4 cup basil, cut into chiffonade

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Ingredients for Variation #2:

1 pound boneless, skinless Alaska sockeye salmon

2 tablespoons minced cilantro

2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion

1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced

Juice of half a lime

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

1 pinch smoked paprika

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Instructions for Variation #1:

Dice half of the salmon into 1/8-inch cubes. Purée the other half in a food processor.   Combine both the salmons together in a medium bowl. Combine together the red onion, garlic, and basil. Add this mixture into the salmon, stirring to gently combine. Season the salmon with salt and pepper to taste.

Shape the salmon into 4 patties and chill until ready to grill or sauté.

Makes 4 burgers

Instructions for Variation #2:

Dice half of the salmon into 1/8-inch cubes. Purée the other half in a food processor. Combine both the salmons together in a medium bowl. Combine together the cilantro, green onion, garlic, lime juice, soy sauce, sesame oil, and smoked paprika. Add this mixture into the salmon, stirring to gently combine. Season the salmon with salt and pepper to taste.

Shape the salmon into 4 patties and chill until ready to grill or sauté.

Makes 4 burgers.

Alaska Salmon Curry

From “The Winterlake Lodge Cookbook: Culinary Adventures in the Alaskan Wilderness” by Kirsten Dixon (Alaska Northwest Books)

Kirsten’s Note: After all these years, salmon curry is still a staff and guest favorite. We prefer to make our own curry spice blend. Make this dish as spicy or mild as you prefer by adjusting the cayenne pepper.


1 pound Alaska salmon

1/2 small red onion

1 fresh tomato

1 knob fresh ginger, peeled and grated

1 clove garlic, peeled and minced

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon whole Fennel seeds

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 cups coconut milk


Skin the salmon and remove any pin bones. Trim the belly meat and any thinner edges to create a fillet that is uniform in thickness. Cut the fillet into 1-inch cubes. Set aside.

Grate the onion on a box grater using the medium holes. Grate the tomato until all that remains in your hand is the skin. Discard the tomato skin. Add the onion and tomato into a medium sauce- pan and cook over medium heat until the liquid begins to evaporate, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add in the ginger, garlic, cayenne, cumin, coriander, paprika, turmeric, and the fennel. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until the spices are aromatic. Add in the lemon juice. Stir for an additional 1 to 2 minutes. Add in the canola oil and continue to stir until the oil is colored from the spices, about 1 to 2 minutes. Pour in the coconut milk and stir well, lowering the heat slightly. The milk should come just to a light simmer.

Drop the salmon into the curry and, with a slotted spoon, remove after 1 to 2 minutes. Serve the salmon over rice (either molded like I prepared or loosely mounded) with extra curry poured over the top.

Makes 16 individual appetizers or 4 main-course dishes.

Homemade Blueberry Jam

From “Winterlake Lodge Cookbook: Culinary Adventures in the Alaskan Wilderness” by Kirsten Dixon (Alaska Northwest Books)

Kirsten’s Note: Wild blueberries are small and intensely flavored but you can substitute store-bought berries if necessary. Sometimes I add a clove to this recipe. Add a little vinegar to make a savory sauce.


4 cups wild (or store- bought) blueberries

4 cups sugar

2 tablespoons lemon juice


Into an enamel or stainless steel medium saucepan, combine the blueberries, sugar, and lemon juice. Lightly mash the berries if you prefer. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-high and gently boil for 15 to 20 minutes.

Makes 4 cups.

Blueberry Pie

From “Notes from a Maine Kitchen” by Kathy Gunst (Down East Books)

Kathy’s Note: Plan on letting the crust chill for at least an hour before rolling it out. And once the pie is made it should chill for at least 30 minutes before baking.

Ingredients for the crust:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

About 3 to 6 tablespoons ice cold water

Ingredients for the fruit filling:

4 cups wild or cultivated blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, or a combination of all three

1 ripe peach or nectarine, peeled, pitted and cut into thin slices

1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar or Vanilla Sugar*

1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 egg, beaten, optional

*To make Vanilla Sugar: cut a vanilla bean down the center lengthwise. Place it in a sugar pot and let it “flavor” the sugar for 24 hours and up to several months. Vanilla sugar is delicious in all kinds of baked goods where vanilla extract would be used.


To prepare the crust: Mix the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and, using a pastry cutter or your hands, break the butter up into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Mix in the 3 tablespoon of the water, adding more if needed, until the dough begins to come together and there is no excess flour in the bottom of the bowl. Add another tablespoon or two of water if needed. Divide the dough in half and mound them each into a round, flat disc, and wrap each in a large piece of plastic wrap. Chill for at least an hour, or up to 48 hours.

To prepare the filling: In a bowl gently mix the blueberries, peach slices, sugar, flour, lemon zest and vanilla until all the berries are well coated. The berries can macerate in the sugar for several hours, covered and refrigerated.

Sprinkle a clean work surface with flour. Remove one of the chilled dough circles and roll it out to a circle about 11 inches across. Place the circle into a 9-inch pie plate, allowing the edges to fall over the sides of the pie plate. Place the cooled blueberry mixture inside the dough. Roll out the other piece of dough to a circle about 11 inches across. Using a pizza cutter or a small, sharp knife, cut strips about ½-inch thick out of the dough. Place the strips on top of the fruit filling, creating a crisscross lattice pattern. Trim off any excess crust and crimp the edges of the dough together, creating a decorative pattern. Place the pie in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to several hours.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the pie on a cookie sheet and brush the pastry with the beaten egg, if desired. (It will make the crust shiny and golden.) Bake for 40 minutes. Reduce the heat to 325 and bake another 10 to 2 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling. If the pie begins to brown too fast, cover loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil. Let the pie cool slightly before cutting.

Serves 6 to 8.


  • Kathy Gunst, cookbook author and resident chef for Here & Now.
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It's HERE AND NOW. And unless you already lived there and we know we do have some listeners who do, it is time now to take a little trip to Alaska.



HOBSON: Precisely. HERE AND NOW resident chef Kathy Gunst is here to talk about Alaskan cuisine. She has just returned from a trip to our northern most state. And, Kathy, welcome back.


HOBSON: So there's a salmon in front of me, and I know we're going to...

GUNST: You noticed that.

HOBSON: ...we're going to get to that soon, right?

GUNST: Promise, we will.

HOBSON: OK. Good, all right. But, first of all, you just got back from Alaska, and you found a lot more than salmon.

GUNST: Oh, I sure did. I was so impressed with just the beauty of the place but also the food is remarkable there. I was at a place called Tutka Bay. This is a wilderness lodge located at the head of this rugged seven-mile fiord. It's nine miles from Homer, Alaska. And the only way to get there is by a seaplane or a water taxi. And there, I met this remarkable woman, Kirsten Dixon. She's become a kind of an ambassador of Alaskan cuisine. She is the chef and owner of Tutka Bay, and he's been there for close to 40 years. She's got a whole degree and culinary background and written a bunch of cookbooks. But she really seems to understand the Alaskan character.

KIRSTEN DIXON: Alaskans feel that we're can-do people. We can survive the 30-below winter. We can get through our lean times. We can build a cabin ourselves. Preserving and canning, taking care of our food. Being self-sufficient with out food is important. Gardening. We have a short, intense 100-day growing season, but the sun doesn't go down. So we can have enormous beautiful gardens. They just don't linger around. They start late, and they go early, and they don't linger too long.

GUNST: So she's not kidding about this light. It never gets dark in the summer, which let me tell you is really weird. It was really hard to wind down at night.

HOBSON: It really never gets dark.

GUNST: At midnight, it's still quite bright. And every morning at breakfast, we would talk about different tricks we had for sticking sweatshirts in the windows so that no crack of light came through. And I had a lot of trouble sleeping. But the vegetables do not have trouble sleeping.

HOBSON: Well, tell us about those. Tell us about these gardens that Kirsten Dixon is talking about.

GUNST: So they have 100-day growing period. Just think about that for a second, just 100 days to make all the food that's going to happen for the entire year...


GUNST: ...because winter comes quickly and intensely. But with 24-hour-day light, sunlight and light, they grow these gardens with enormous vegetables, and they really pride themselves on the size of the vegetables. And so many of these gardens are organic. Because it's so freezing cold in Alaska, they don't have a trouble with bugs and pests. They do have mosquitoes, however.

HOBSON: Right, of course.

GUNST: And they grow crops that you would think they would grow, like rhubarb and potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, kale, hardy kind of winter greens. And it's not just vegetables. Alaska is also quiet famous for its berries. Every summer, the berries become ripe, and I'm going to let Kirsten tell you about it.

DIXON: Wild berries in Alaska are particularly revered. And in many villages, all the women will gather to go berry picking together in August. And it will be a time of great social importance. You can not get someone to come to work when it's time to gather together to go berry picking. And it's much more than just getting the berries. It's a time of getting away together conveniently as women and camping a little bit and great sort of celebration and fun.

HOBSON: You know, Kathy, that reminds me of a trip I took once to another very northern state, Maine...

GUNST: My home state, yes.

HOBSON: ...your home state, where I did go picking berries, blueberries, as a matter of fact, wild blueberries.

GUNST: Yeah, they're everywhere there. And in Alaska, again, they grow huge berries. I saw strawberries. I've never eaten a strawberry so sweet in my life. And they are huge. Again...

HOBSON: How big are we talking?

GUNST: We're talking like very - maybe miniature golf ball, but usually that would mean they're overgrown and not sweet. They're perfectly red. I went to a few berry farms. It's big business there. There's wild blueberries, strawberries, huckleberries. There's also raspberries or something called a watermelon berry. They're quite proud of their berry population.

HOBSON: OK. Well, let's get away from berries because I'm still looking at this salmon in front of me, and I want to find out about that.

GUNST: Yeah, yeah. I promised you would get to it.

HOBSON: OK. Yes. Tell me.


GUNST: OK. So what I have in front of you is a West Coast wild salmon. I'm afraid it's not from Alaska. And this is my recipe where you cooked down maple syrup - a great New England ingredient - let it become a glaze and then you broil the fish or grill it with the maple syrup and add some sea salt. And here you go, Jeremy. What you have on top there..

HOBSON: All right. Let's try some of this.

GUNST: an Alaskan sea salt that's been smoked over alder wood. So you get this kind of slightly smoky, salty and also sweet. Now, let me tell you a little bit about Alaskan salmon. You chill.


HOBSON: And let me say, I can taste that maple glaze.

GUNST: Yes. Isn't that nice? Well, salmon in Alaska is quite oily because of the freezing cold waters. And there are five species that are really found in the Pacific Ocean.

There is chinook, which is the king salmon. That's the most prized. And that's huge, up to 150 pounds. There is coho or silver. There is sockeye. There is There is chum. There is pink. And these salmon are so full of flavor and omega-3s and nutrient.

I talked to a guy in Anchorage, Rob Kinneen. He's a chef at a place called Crush Bistro. And I said to him, so how would you describe wild salmon versus farm salmon? And he's like, to him, he said, East Coast farm salmon, it's like someone leeched all the flavor out of it.


GUNST: But let me tell you, Jeremy, people are not the only ones interested in Alaskan salmon because my second to last day there, I wanted to see bears. I won't go into my obsession with bears, but I am obsessed.

So I met a guy named Jimmy Christensen - he's an Alaskan seaplane pilot and a bit of a bear expert - and went to Kanai National Park, which is where you go to see the bears. This is the place with those classic photos of the bears sitting on the waterfall with their mouths open and the salmon just jump.

HOBSON: Yeah. Waiting for the salmon to just jump in.

GUNST: So here's Jimmy.

JIMMY CHRISTENSEN: Most of the bears here will be engaged in fishing activities and sleeping. It's their other favorite thing to do after they eat a bunch of fish. So this time of year in the mid-summer is in the height of the salmon run, so most of the bears we see will be fishing. And that's what everyone came here for, even the bears and everyone else here too.

HOBSON: It's funny that he calls that fishing.


GUNST: Yeah. Right.

HOBSON: Just standing there with your mouth open, waiting for the fish.

GUNST: I spent about 3 1/2 hours just watching them, quote, "fish."


GUNST: I mean, they - some of the bears just open their mouths and when the salmon are running - 100,000 salmon moved through this area - you literally feel like you could just put your hand and pull them out. And there's fishermen and women all along the river fishing, and then there are bears everywhere. It was an incredible day.

HOBSON: So, Kathy, after this trip to Alaska, what would you say Alaskan cuisine is?

GUNST: I think it's an emerging cuisine. Both Kirsten Dixon of Tutka Bay and chef Rob Kinneen of Crush Bistro in Anchorage talked about this growing consciousness of eating local foods and growing foods. It turns out that the state of Alaska will give refunds to chefs when they buy local foods. That's what kind of an emphasis there is on it.

Because it's such a short season, they really are growing a lot of great foods. There's the fishing community. And, of course, Alaska was owned by the Russians for over 100 years, and you still see Russian influences in some of the food. You see Asian and Japanese influences, of course, from the Pacific Rim. They all share the same waters so it's this whole big fishing community.

HOBSON: Yeah. Makes sense.

GUNST: And you also see Scandinavian influences in pickling. They do a lot of pickling because they have to preserve food, a lot of canning. I saw juniper berry in a lot of dishes, a lot of smoking fish, a lot of gathering of mushrooms. You still see people drying salmon on hooks outside fishing camps, you know, that kind of post card of Alaska that you imagine. And there's a lot of foraging and wild greens, and a lot of attention to what you find in the wild.

Because if there's anything about Alaska, it's that it is still a very pristine and wild and spectacular place with a cuisine that's becoming more and more interesting.

HOBSON: HERE AND NOW resident chef Kathy Gunst giving us her take on Alaskan food after a recent trip to Alaska. You can get recipes and maybe some bear photos at Kathy, thanks as always.

GUNST: Thanks, Jeremy. Finish the salmon.

HOBSON: I will.


Meanwhile, the studio is sort of like a smelly mash up of...


YOUNG: ...Alaska and Vermont with maple syrup. Wonderful, wonderful.

HOBSON: I think we need to take the show on the road to Alaska, Robin.

YOUNG: I think we need to visit our listeners there, don't you?

HOBSON: I think so. Absolutely. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.