Audrey Alfaro scores a goal every time she makes her Salmon Olympia.
The casserole, preferably made with wild Alaska salmon she caught herself, is her most-requested recipe. Seasoned with salt and lemon pepper and placed on a bed of baby spinach, salmon is the star. Other major players are a coating of panko bread crumbs and Parmesan and creamy topping of more cheese, citrus, mayonnaise, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces, butter and sour cream.
“I love the richness of it,” Alfaro said. “I think it’s easy. And I love salmon, so I love any salmon recipe.”
This particular dish also serves up a sense of nostalgia. It reminds Alfaro of home. It reminds her of the holidays. Her extended family served a similar dish, Halibut Olympia, on a bed of onions.
“It was at all holidays,” Alfaro said. “It was at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, every little family get-together.
These days, “Whenever we have company, I’ll make it.”
Alfaro, 35, adapted the recipe for her husband Scott “Burtie” Burt, 38, a former Alaska Aces hockey player who’s been assistant coach with the Spokane Chiefs since 2013.
“He doesn’t like onions whatsoever, so I changed it,” she said of her spinach substitution. Using salmon instead of halibut was an easy swap, too.
Both Alfaro and Burt are avid anglers. Their favorite place to fish for red, or sockeye, salmon is on the Kenai River in Alaska.
Each summer, “We get to spend a month up or two up there,” camping and fishing in Soldotna, where there’s easy river accessibility. “We go behind the Fred Meyer off the (Soldotna River Walk) boardwalk. Everybody up there knows it,” Alfaro said. “Fishing is the best. I love it.”
Salmon Olympia is easily doubled if company’s coming. Sometimes, she adds parboiled, sliced potatoes. The dish is creamy and rich, so she tends to serve it with salad.
“It’s my favorite thing to do with salmon,” Alfaro said. “I love the crunch of the panko on top.”
Alfaro is a stay-at-home mom now, caring for the couple’s 4-year-old daughter Sophie when Burt is at practice or on the road for hockey games. But she had worked for 13 years as a bartender in downtown Anchorage. That’s where she met Burt. The Canadian hockey player used to come into the bar with Alaska Aces team members.
He started his career with the Thunderbirds, playing two seasons in Seattle as a teenager in the mid-1990s. He spent seven seasons with the Idaho Steelheads in Boise and played for several other teams before transitioning to coaching in 2011. His goal is to make it as a head coach in the National Hockey League.
“He has the passion and drive,” Alfaro said. “There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll make it there. He eats sleeps and breathes hockey.”
A self-taught baker and cook, Alfaro grew up in a large family with many extended members and professional chefs. Her dad, who came to Alaska from the Philippines in the 1970s, was one of 11 siblings, eight of whom are in the culinary field. He recently bought a food truck as a retirement project.
Her mother, whose ancestry is Spanish, was one of six siblings. Between both sides, there are dozens of cousins.
“Our spread at holidays is ridiculous,” said Alfaro, who ran a small baking business called Love Bites as a side job in Anchorage, making and decorating cakes, cupcakes, cakepops and other desserts.
“I could only handle three to four cakes per week because it was just me by myself,” she said. “Honestly, with baking, I don’t really like the baking part; I like decorating and making things look pretty.”
She got to put those skills to the test as a contestant on a recent show on Food Network. She applied on a whim after coming across the casting call online last spring.
“A week later I got a call from Food Network,” she said. “It was so fast. The next three weeks was a series of Skype interviews. I had to send in a video of me baking and talking to the camera.”
Alfaro is no stranger to the spotlight. She’s competed in pageants, such as Miss Alaska USA, and still does some commercial modeling and voice work.
Alfaro received a call at the end of May letting her know she was selected as one of seven contestants – “out of thousands,” she said – for “Halloween Baking Championship,” a new show that aired for the first time in October. She was the only one who wasn’t a professional baker.
To prepare, Alfaro said she recorded other Food Network competition shows, but ended up not watching them. “I didn’t want to pre-stress myself out,” she said.
Filming took place during four “very long days” days in early June at Sony Pictures Studio in Culver City, California. Alfaro said a shuttle would pick up contestants from their hotel at 7 a.m. and return them around 10 p.m. after a day of filming, baking and interviewing.
“The camera, the lights, the timers – it was so hard. It was the most stress and anxiety I’ve ever felt in my life, ever,” Alfaro said, adding, “It sucks to recap when you messed up.”
She didn’t mess up in the first of the four episodes. She was the winner with her rustic blueberry cheesecake.
“This is my strategy: I visualize what I want a dessert to look like and then I work backward,” said Alfaro, who was eliminated in the third episode. In it, she said she worked against her strategy and tried to make ice cream for the first time. She ended up clogging the machine on the first try and over-mixing her ice cream during her second attempt.
“I had recipes in mind, but you have no idea what they’re going to throw at you, so you’re working off the top of your head,” she said. “You kind of stay in your comfort zone and do what works for you and whatever ingredients they throw at you.”
Alfaro was the third contestant to be eliminated. Four went to the final round. She didn’t get to see any episodes until they aired.
“It’s like living it all over again,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity. To be on Food Network, it was unbelievable.
“Everybody was awesome,” Alfaro said. “Being in such a stressful environment, we all bonded so fast. We’re talking about doing a group reunion next year.”
After filming and a fishing trip, she returned home to Spokane, where she and her husband keep an extra freezer for “Burtie’s beer” and the salmon from the couple’s Alaska adventures. Last summer, “I think I shipped home 90 pounds, and that’s filleted and everything,” Alfaro said.
In September, she launched her Spoon and Swallow food blog and posted her Salmon Olympia recipe.
She said she thought, “I better just put something up to showcase what I do, my style and my personality. I definitely always wanted to do something like that, but (being on the show) gave me the push.”
In the future, Alfaro said, “Ideally, I would like to host a cooking show, not necessarily where I cook but where I go around and taste what everyone else is cooking.”
She also said she’s thought about going to culinary school.
Meantime, she makes her beloved Salmon Olympia “three times a month at least.”
Burt doesn’t get bored of it. But he likes to spice it up with extra hot sauce.
“This is one of my favorite dishes,” he said. “It doesn’t last long at our house. Our whole (Spokane Chiefs) staff has had it” – but not the players.
If there are any leftovers, he warms them in the microwave, then pops them in the broiler to crisp the top.
“It’s just as good, if not better, the next day,” he said.
From Audrey Alfaro
Her family usually makes this dish with halibut, “but really, any fish will do,” Alfaro writers on her Spoon and Swallow blog.
“If you’re cooking for four or more, I’d definitely double it up. And don’t be shy seasoning your mayo mixture. If you like spicy, load up on the Tabasco. Dill? Throw in handful. Lemon? Squeeze away! This dish pleases even the pickiest of fish eaters, and you’ll soon see why!”
3 cups spinach (and/or onions)
6 tablespoons butter, divided
Salt, to taste
Lemon pepper, to taste
1 pound salmon fillets, skinless and boneless
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill, or more to taste
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice, fresh squeezed
3 dashes of Worcestershire Sauce
4 dashes of Tabasco
3/4 cup Parmesan, shredded
Garlic powder, to taste
1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs
1 teaspoon parsley flakes
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease an 8-by-8 casserole dish. Spread spinach (and/or onions) in dish, dot with 3 tablespoons of butter and season with salt and lemon pepper. Arrange salmon fillets over spinach and season with salt, lemon pepper and some dill.
In a medium bowl, mix together mayo, sour cream, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, dill and 1/2 cup Parmesan. Season to taste with salt, lemon pepper and garlic powder. Spread mixture over salmon.
Melt remaining 3 tablespoons of butter in a bowl, then stir in panko bread crumbs, parsley flakes and remaining Parmesan. Sprinkle evenly over mayo topping.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until golden on top and sides are bubbling. Let sit 10 minutes before serving.