The summer is flying by. And while we can’t slow down time, we can take full advantage of summer vegetables in their full glory. Hetty McKinnon is an Australian cook and food writer with a passion for vegetables. She’s written a new book on the subject; it’s called Family: New Vegetarian Comfort Food to Nourish Every Day. Our lovely contributor Melissa Clark recently met up with Hetty to talk about some new ways we can incorporate all of those fresh seasonal vegetables into our weeknight cooking routines. Try your hand at the recipes for The Deconstructed Falafel Salad, Vegetable Pajeon (Korean Savory Pancakes), and My Great Aunt's Chana Masala
Melissa Clark: Hetty, what made you call your book Family? It’s really an unusual name for a cookbook.
Hetty McKinnon: For me a cookbook starts with a story, so it’s the ethos of what the book’s going to be talking about, and this book was always going to be about vegetarian comfort food; it’s the type of food that I cook for my family. I’ve written two salad cookbooks prior to this. This one was still taking me love of vegetables but putting it within a framework that my children would eat. And so they were kind of my inspiration. They taste-tested every single recipe in the book. I started with the word ‘family’ and I kind of let myself roll out that story.
MC: One of the things I love about the book is you have so many different families profiled. How did you choose the different families?
HM: Those people were my friends, and I said to them, “Tell me a story about a particular food or dish that you remember growing up and why it’s important to you, why it’s important to your family.” Those stories came from them. I don’t like to give too much direction when I ask for those stories. I allow them to come up with the story and the feelings themselves.
MC: Was it fun to feed your family other families dishes? How did your kids react?
HM: The Chana Masala from Chitra Agrawal is one of the favorites in our house. It’s something we have on our weekly repertoire. The Vegetable Pajeon (Korean Savory Pancakes) from Erin Yang – I’d never made those before, but they’re so simple, and there’s something really special about incorporating someone else’s recipe into your own family repertoire. I think that’s the way family meals evolve, is when you hear from a friend a particular way of making something, and then put your own spin on it. I love the idea of recipes evolving all the time.
MC: You just mentioned the Korean pancake, the pajeon. Can you talk about that? I feel that’s the perfect thing to do with all these summer vegetables that we have right now, because it’s so adaptable. Can you walk us through that recipe?
HM: Yeah. Erin actually says to use whatever you have in the fridge – the leftovers, little bits of carrots or peppers that you might have – and you shred those up. Erin’s an artist, so she makes it beautiful by separating all the vegetables. She makes a batter that’s got all-purpose, plain flour with the Korean paste.
MC: The Korean chili paste?
HM: The doenjang, which is the savory umami paste, but only a very tiny amount. Put that into a fry pan, and then she lays each vegetable on at a time. But I have to say when I make it in my house, I tend to mix all the vegetables together. [laughing] I’m less artistic than Erin. It’s served with a soy sauce. I guess it’s a little bit like an okonomiyaki, but like a Korean version. It’s lovely and easy, and as you said, perfect for summer vegetables.
MC: And for kids too, who love to tear apart pancakes and dip them in the dipping sauce.
HM: Absolutely. And with the kids, they all have their quirks, so some might like broccoli. Two of my children can’t stand peppers and one of them loves it. But everyone loves broccoli. It’s like the peacemaker of the vegetable world. The pajeons are really great for that type of thing, for customizing and tailoring to individual tastes.
MC: You wrote in the book that you, culturally, are a very different kind of a mother from your mom. Can you talk about that in terms of cooking and eating together as a family?
HM: My mom is probably my greatest influence in everything. As I get older, I realize this. When you’re younger you want to reject everything your mother tells you, as my children are doing to me now. But for me now as an older person, I’ve come to realize that those lessons that my mom taught me – not particularly verbally but in action with things that she did for us – are the greatest influence in shaping the kind of person I am and the type of mother I am. But culturally we grew up in different worlds.
She grew up in China, came to Australia in her early 20s, and was then trying to find her feet in a new world with new language. To this day doesn’t speak much English. I was born in Sidney and I had this very different kind of third culture world, as I now describe it. It’s a very different culture to her – going to Australian schools and being Australian when I was at school, but really growing up as a Chinese person at home. We spoke Cantonese. We at Chinese food every day.
My mom being an immigrant, she didn’t have a profession, so domestic duties were her thing, and she did it with aplomb. She was so committed to delivering this incredible food on our table twice a day because during the day we’d be at school. At dinner, every night, it was rice with five or six different dishes in the middle of the table, and these ingredients that she had gathered by taking trains and buses to different neighborhoods to get this type of tofu that she wanted. There was so much commitment to that. Before I started cooking I didn’t realize what it feels like to cook and nurture people through food. Sometimes it’s just sustenance, but when I really got committed to it and my kids were growing up, that dinner time was so sacred to us growing up. It was the great anchor in our lives, that we ate very early in the day.
The sun wasn’t even down yet because my dad worked at the markets. He got up 3:00 a.m. every morning, and at 5:00 p.m. there’d be this clatter, and there’d be yelling and screaming. The exhaust fan would go off and we would all gather around the table, and that was so much stability in my life as a child from that one dinnertime. And we all ate very fast. It could be over in five or ten minutes, but that five or ten minutes is that stability that I think every child looks for. So now with my family, and really since we moved to the US, the dinner table, which is actually the same table we had in Sidney – we actually shipped it over.
MC: That’s a commitment.
HM: Yeah. It is such an anchor for my family too. It’s when we all sit down together. We talk. The kids talk about school, their friends, what’s happening, how they’re feeling. It’s not like a therapy session; it’s just an equalizer. The table is like the equalizer and we talk about food a lot.
MC: One of the things you write about in the book also – I’m sure this is very different for you than it was for your mom – is the feeling the pressure of the weeknight. And you write about weeknight cheats – how to feed your family quickly – and one of the ones that I really loved was these cheat dressings.
HM: Yes. Salads are a big thing in our house. I started off making salads. That’s how I landed in food. I had a salad business. Salads, to me, are still what I want to eat every night, and if I can’t think of what I’m going to make – because I don’t want to feed my kids pasta every night; that’s kind of a once-a-week thing – salads are still the way that I put a quick dinner on the table.
There are a couple of things. I actually did one last night. It was just a tahini dressing, which you just add a bit of water, some garlic, some citrus. Last night I got fancy and chopped up a whole bunch of herbs, like whatever herbs I had in my fridge. That’s your quick tahini dressing. I serve that with a whole range of things. Chickpeas. There are a lot of legumes in our house because through the book I’m only cooking vegetarian at home now for the last couple of years. That’s been a new thing. You can do lots of roasted vegetables and potatoes, which there’s been a potato renaissance in our house. Tahini goes with everything.
My other quick one is an oil-based herb dressing. So, whatever herbs you have – everyone has these little half-used bunches of herbs in their fridge – you can just chop that up. You don’t even have to get out a mortar and pestle. I used to, but now I just chop that up on a chopping board really fine with a small clove of garlic, add some good quality olive oil, salt and pepper and some citrus if you like, and that’s your salad dressing you can use for absolutely everything.
MC: Just having those two things in the fridge at all times, and then you can kind of mix and match to the vegetables.
HM: Absolutely. Sweet potato, roasted broccoli. The brassicas feature very highly in our house – cauliflower, Brussels sprouts. My kids love Brussels sprouts.
MC: That’s amazing, because I think those are love them or hate them vegetables. You were just talking about grains and beans and the tahini dressing. There’s this other recipe that I’m dying to try – the deconstructed falafel salad. It sounds like you use a tahini dressing for that.
HM: Yes, that’s a lemon tahini. I just add some lemon to it. This is probably the most popular recipe in the book. It is like falafels but without any of the effort or the deep-frying. These crispy chickpeas are quite incredible. I just use canned chickpeas because I’m not organized enough to soak my chickpeas. But, if you are organized enough, by all means use fresh chickpeas. The canned legumes I think are fine for weeknight cooking. I think we’re all trying to make recipes as approachable as possible, and if you think you have to start it two days prior it’s a little daunting.
Canned chickpeas – I just drain them and cover them in a good amount of olive oil with some spices, some cumin, some ground coriander, some paprika if you like, and a clove of garlic. And then you roast them on a high heat, about 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes until they get brown and crispy. They almost taste like chips. They’re so delicious. And then that’s mixed with fresh ingredients like freshly shaved cucumber, kale that’s been sautéed so it’s a little bit wilted. I guess you could massage the kale if you didn’t want to cook it; it’s summer, so we want to do minimal cooking.
MC: Or just beautiful greens like the hearty arugulas.
HM: I think that’s a great idea. Just adapt it whatever season you’re in, and then just the lemon tahini. You can add pita chips if you like; store-bought pita chips are fine. Kids love that crunch, so most of my salads are all about the texture. It’s about layering on the different textures and really finding different ways of using everyday things.
MC: Right, and that’s what I love about this whole combination of the chickpeas because I roast chickpeas all the time, but I would never think to put them in this kind of salad. I loved that. You’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years, is that right?
HM: Longer now. Twenty-five.
MC: Do you have any general tips for helping cooks add more vegetables to their daily meals, their weeknight meals?
HM: At this time of the year I always have a bag of greens that I get from the market that I can add to things. Often for lunch I just have a plate of greens with avocado or some chickpeas and olive oil.
MC: Or one of your cheat dressings.
HM: Or one of the cheat dressings. I always have leftover dressing in my fridge too. That’s the other thing; make more than you need because tahini dressings keep for 5-7 days in the fridge, so you can just get that back out and whip it up with a little bit more water if it’s become too thick. Another other thing about vegetables is, particularly in the summer when you go to the market, there’s so much there. I get a little overwhelmed. I get a little bit excited.
MC: Do you buy too much stuff? I buy too much stuff.
HM: I always buy too much stuff. Always. In the last couple of years I’ve tried to narrow it down. I go and I see something I like and I’ll buy more of the one thing. Lately I’ve been buying sugar snap peas; I’ll buy a good bag of that and use it in a couple of different ways. Sugar snaps, for example, you can eat them raw, shave them thinly, you can pan fry them, and it’s really just such an easy vegetable to have in the fridge.
Often on the weekends I’ll buy two cauliflowers and have them chopped up already. The thing about vegetarian food is it does take more preparation. It’s much more work than having a piece of steak and throwing that on the barbecue or in your fry pan. There is more chopping involved. But I think there are basic ways you can look at vegetables. You can take a vegetable like a cauliflower or a broccoli, have the florets already cut up in the fridge, and then you can pan fry. I think turning on the oven is a big commitment at most times of the year. In the winter I don’t mind it because it warms my house, but in the summer it’s not something that I’m ever looking forward to. So, you can put that on your grill, or pan fry it, and it takes five minutes. You can do it with some legumes. Legumes are wonderful to have in the pantry. I always try and have a lot of different legumes. I often also make grains in bulk and put that in my freezer.
MC: You freeze grains?
HM: I freeze quinoa and farro.
MC: That’s a good tip for people. You can freeze that and then you just throw it into a sauté pan?
HM: Exactly. Just to defrost it. If you’re going to ask me to talk about vegetables, I can do so for a very long time because they’re so exciting to me. It’s about trying them in different ways.
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