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'Tenderheart' tells one Chinese-Australian chef's stories of family, food, loss and joy

Carrot Peanut Satay Ramen from "Tenderheart." (Hetty McKinnon)
Carrot Peanut Satay Ramen from "Tenderheart." (Hetty McKinnon)

Hetty Lui McKinnon’s father was a Chinese immigrant who worked in Australia’s wholesale fruit and vegetable business. She remembers her childhood marked by an abundance of fresh produce. 

McKinnon’s father died when she was 15. For decades, she says the pain of remembering her father was too great, so she shied away from feeling her grief. But leaning into cooking food that reminded her of him helped, she says. 

“The pain of losing someone doesn’t go away. It kind of binds itself to your whole soul and it becomes you,” she says. “But through food, it gave me the courage to kind of think about his life, think about his legacy.”

McKinnon authored the popular cookbook “To Asia, With Love,” in 2021. Recently, she released her new book “Tenderheart: A Book About Vegetables and Unbreakable Family Bonds.” She credits “Tenderheart” with essentially forcing her to process some of the emotions she carried around her father’s death as she wrote the book.

The Chinese-Australian chef interweaves recipes drawn from her Cantonese upbringing, specifically dishes that include vegetables. She says that cooking dishes that represent her heritage helps her feel connected to it. And she wishes the same for her children.

“We live in the West and the intergenerational history gets lost,” McKinnon says. “I wanted to have this as a little dose of their grandfather.”

Recipes from ‘Tenderheart: A Book About Vegetables and Unbreakable Family Bonds’

By Hetty Lui McKinnon

Fennel and gnocchi salad with fennel frond pesto. (Hetty McKinnon)

Fennel and gnocchi salad with fennel frond pesto

Here is a lovely double fennel salad, a wonderful way to show how we can create an entire meal around one vegetable: crunchy shaved raw fennel is slathered in fennel frond pesto and tossed with crispy morsels of pan-fried gnocchi. This salad shows how anise flavors can be layered without overthrowing the other ingredients or dominating the overall dish. This is an adaptable recipe, too—add some roasted broccoli or cauliflower, incorporate a leafy green, such as baby spinach or watercress, or substitute a filled pasta like tortellini or ravioli for the gnocchi. You could also use a short pasta shape in place of the gnocchi. You can use either vacuum-sealed or frozen gnocchi—if using frozen, don’t thaw it first! I like to use baby fennel in this salad because they are sweeter and more tender, but regular fennel works just fine. Serves 4.


  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound 10 ounces (750 g) gnocchi
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • 2 baby fennel bulbs (about 13 oz/375 g) or 1 regular fennel bulb (about 12 oz/350 g), finely sliced
  • ¾–1 cup Fennel Frond Pesto
  • Handful of grated parmesan, pecorino or cheddar


  1. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, drizzle in 2–3 tablespoons of olive oil, add the gnocchi and season with a pinch of sea salt. Pan-fry for 3–4 minutes, tossing the gnocchi often, until golden on both sides.
  2. Transfer the gnocchi to a large serving plate, add the fennel and fennel frond pesto and toss until well coated. Serve with a handful of grated cheese on top.

For gluten-free • use gluten-free gnocchi

Veganize • use vegan cheese

Substitute • gnocchi: boiled or roasted potatoes parmesan, pecorino or cheddar: nutritional yeast

Fennel frond pesto

Billowing, feathery fennel fronds can be transformed into a delicious pesto, with a mellow anise flavor that does not overpower. The first time I tried fennel frond pesto was during quarantine, when fresh vegetables became a precious commodity and using the whole vegetable was a necessity.

Fennel frond pesto. (Hetty McKinnon)

During the first lockdown of 2020, my friend Lisa Marie Corso sent me her recipe for fennel frond pesto, and it was incredibly eye-opening—a vibrantly green, grassy sauce that didn’t taste distinctly of fennel, much smoother than other “vegetable top” pesto mixes. I’ve been experimenting with different versions of fennel frond pesto ever since, sometimes with other herbs or leaves added, often without cheese, or with different nuts and seeds. This is my favorite recipe, incorporating toasted pumpkin seeds, which add a mild nuttiness and gentle sweetness. Serve with pasta, roasted vegetables, on grain bowls or as a salad dressing. Makes 1 ½ cups.


  • About 2 ½ cups (150 g) fennel fronds
  • 4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • ½ cup toasted pumpkin seeds
  • Sea salt
  • 1 cup (240 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 ¾ ounces (50 g) hard cheese, such as cheddar, parmesan or pecorino, finely grated


  1. Place the fennel fronds, garlic and pumpkin seeds in a blender and pulse a few times to chop everything up. Add about 1 teaspoon of sea salt, along with the olive oil, and blitz until you have a coarse paste.
  2. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the cheese. Taste and add more sea salt, if needed.

Storage: This pesto will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, or freeze in a container or resealable bag for up to 3 months.

Veganize • replace the hard cheese with 2–3 tablespoons of nutritional yeast or 1–2 tablespoons of miso

Substitute • pumpkin seeds: walnuts, pine nuts, sunflower seeds

Miso-maple sugar snap pea, turnip and strawberry salad. (Hetty McKinnon)

Miso-maple sugar snap pea, turnip and strawberry salad

I love the crunch of sugar snaps that have been pan-fried, just enough. Just enough is key—it draws out some sweetness, amplifies the sugar snaps’ firm exterior, releases their naturally vibrant hues. They should offer resilience to your bite, but yield with minimal effort, offering the eponymous snap. You could also leave the sugar snaps raw, just finely sliced. This will offer a different experience, one that is greener, more spring-like. Miso and maple bring out all sides of the sugar snaps—the savory notes, along with earthy sweetness. It’s a jaunty dressing, too, one that could be adapted to many vegetable situations. The strawberries complete this story, adding surprising moments of fruitiness and acidity. Serves 4.


  • 1 cup (200 g) white or mixed quinoa
  • 2 cups (480 ml) vegetable stock  or water
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound (450 g) sugar snap peas, trimmed
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • 2 small turnips (about 3 ½ oz/100 g), such as Harukei, peeled and finely shaved
  • 5 ounces (150 g) strawberries, hulled and quartered
  • Handful of mint leaves

Miso-maple vinaigrette

  • 4 teaspoons white (shiro) miso
  • ¼ cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 teaspoons maple syrup
  • 4 teaspoons rice vinegar
  • 1 garlic clove, grated


  1. Place the quinoa and vegetable stock or water in a saucepan and place over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 15–18 minutes, until all the liquid has been absorbed and the quinoa is translucent. Turn off the heat and let cool while you prepare the rest of the salad.
  2. To make the miso-maple vinaigrette, add all the ingredients to a small bowl, along with 4 teaspoons of water. Whisk until smooth and well combined.
  3. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Drizzle with olive oil and add the sugar snap peas, season with sea salt and black pepper and toss for 2–3 minutes, until the sugar snaps turn bright green. Add 1–2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette to the peas and toss for 30 seconds. Allow to cool for 3–5 minutes.
  4. Scoop the quinoa into a large bowl. Add the sugar snaps, turnip, strawberries, mint leaves and the remaining vinaigrette and toss to combine. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Do ahead: The quinoa and sugar snaps can be made several hours ahead of time and left at room temperature (or stored overnight in the fridge). Add the strawberries, turnip and vinaigrette just before you are ready to eat.

Alternative serving suggestion: If you are looking for a lighter dish, you can omit the quinoa and double the amount of sugar snap peas, adding in some baby spinach leaves. You could also use raw sugar snaps—simply slice them finely.

Gluten-free and vegan

Substitute • strawberries: blueberries,  blackberries • turnips: radishes

Vegetable swap • sugar snap peas: green peas, snow peas, green beans

Ginger and cilantro noodle pancake. (Hetty McKinnon)

Ginger and cilantro noodle pancake

It is interesting what manifests from scarcity, or the threat of scarcity. I spent the first two months of lockdown in Brooklyn devising all the ways I could use instant noodles; dishes that were an extension of the package instructions. I saw instant noodles as my ultimate quarantine food; inexpensive, with an unlimited shelf life and, most important, accessible—with the supermarkets cleaned out of canned beans and pasta, instant noodles remained in ample supply. I made kimchi noodle soups, peanut butter noodles, cacio e pepe noodles, noodle fry-ups, noodle salads and, most memorable of all, instant noodle cakes. This ramen pancake is one of the fun recipes I conceived during this time—flavored by a lively ginger-cilantro oil, the noodles are pan-fried until a crispy crust forms. Serve with the Stir-Fried Lettuce, Ginger Jook or a green salad. Serves 4 as a snack.


  • 3 packages instant ramen noodles (about 9 oz/250 g), soaked in warm water for 10 minutes
  • 5 teaspoons soy sauce or tamari
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons toasted white sesame seeds
  • Big handful of cilantro leaves
  • 1-inch (2.5 cm) piece of ginger (¾ oz/20 g), peeled and finely julienned

Ginger-cilantro oil:

  • 3-inch (7.5 cm) piece of ginger (2 oz/ 60 g), peeled and finely chopped
  • ½ tightly packed cup cilantro, leaves and stems finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • ⅓ cup (80 ml) neutral oil


  1. To make the ginger-cilantro oil, place the ginger, cilantro and salt in a small heatproof bowl. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat for 2–4 minutes, until a wooden chopstick or spoon sizzles immediately when you place it in the oil. When it’s ready, very carefully pour the oil over the ginger and cilantro mix—stand back, as it will spit and sizzle violently. Stir and set aside.
  2. Drain the noodles in a colander, shaking it to remove excess water. Toss the noodles with your hands or tongs to loosen them. Transfer to a large bowl and add three-quarters of the ginger- cilantro oil (reserve the rest for topping), the soy sauce or tamari, rice vinegar and sesame seeds. Toss to combine.
  3. Heat a large skillet that is approximately 9–10 inches (23–25 cm) in diameter over medium-high heat. When hot, add the noodles and cook, undisturbed, for 2–3 minutes to give the bottom a good sear and enough time to turn crispy (this helps the noodles hold together). Reduce the heat to medium and cook, again undisturbed, for another 5–7 minutes, until the bottom is golden all over. Using a spatula, lift parts of the noodle pancake to ensure that it is not burning—if the noodles get darker in one spot, move your pan around over the heat to ensure even browning. When it is ready, place a plate about the same size as the pan over the noodle pancake and swiftly flip it over. Slide the pancake, uncooked-side down, back into the pan and tuck the edges of the noodles in so that it is a neat round. Cook, undisturbed, for 4–5 minutes, until golden and crispy. Slide onto a plate.
  4. To serve, cut into wedges and top with the remaining ginger- cilantro oil, cilantro leaves and ginger strips.


Substitute • instant noodles: egg noodles • cilantro: green onions

From “Tenderheart: A Cookbook About Vegetables and Unbreakable Family Bonds.” © 2023 by Hetty Lui McKinnon. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Shirley Jahad produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Grace Griffin adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.