Tenderheart by Hetty Lui McKinnon, a review

I’m fast and furiously trying to finish up 2023 strong with my “best of” cookbook reviews.  Today’s feature is a massive book but well worth the read—Tenderheart by Hetty Lui McKinnon.  And the recipes?  They sound phenomenal.

About the book:

ONE OF BON APPETIT‘S BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR • The acclaimed author of To Asia, With Love explores how food connects us to our loved ones and gives us the tools to make vegetarian recipes that are healthful, economical, and bursting with flavor.

“A love letter to vegetables and almost a memoir through recipes, this truly special book speaks to the soul as much as to the stomach.” —Nigella Lawson, author of Cook, Eat, Repeat

“Gorgeous, down to earth, vegetable-driven dishes that strike the most delicious balance between fresh and exciting, and cozy and approachable.” —Molly Yeh, Food Network host and NYT Bestselling author of Home Is Where the Eggs Arand Molly on the Range

Heritage and food have always been linked for Hetty Lui McKinnon. Tenderheart is a loving homage to her father, a Chinese immigrant in Australia, told in flavorful, vegetarian recipes. Growing up as part of a Chinese family in Australia, McKinnon formed a deep appreciation for her bicultural identity, and for her father, who moved to Sydney as a teenager and learned English while selling bananas at a local market. As he brought home crates full of produce after work, McKinnon learned about the beauty and versatility of fruits and vegetables.

Tenderheart is the happy outcome of McKinnon’s love of vegetables, featuring 22 essential fruits and vegetables that become the basis for over 180 recipes.

  • Miso Mushroom Ragu with Baked Polenta
  • Carrot and Vermicelli Buns
  • Crispy Potato Tacos
  • Kale, Ginger and Green Onion Noodle
  • Soy–Butter Bok Choy Pasta
  • Sweet Potato and Black Sesame Marble Bundt

About the author:

Hetty Lui McKinnon is a Chinese Australian cook and food writer. A James Beard Foundation finalist, she is the author of four other cookbooks, including the much-loved To Asia, With Love (2021), the award-winning Family: New Vegetarian Comfort Food to Nourish Every Day (2019), Neighbourhood: Hearty Salads and Plant-Based Recipes from Home and Abroad (2017), and Community: Salad Recipes from Arthur Street Kitchen (2014). Hetty is also the editor and publisher of multicultural food journal Peddler and the host of the magazine’s podcast The House Specials. She is a regular recipe contributor to The New York TimesBon Appetit, Epicurious.com, and ABC Everyday; and her recipes have appeared in Food52, the GuardianThe Washington Post and more. Born and raised in Sydney, she now resides in Brooklyn, New York.

What I thought…

Tenderheart is one of those cookbooks that you must read for the story (similar to Yogurt & Whey but perhaps not as lyrical).  Her homage to her father (and vegetables) is laid out in the opening pages.  It’s also one of a recent spate of cookbooks and novels that were born out of the pandemic.  McKinnon talks about experimenting to get every last drop of goodness out of vegetables and “always seeing how far I could push them” (19) during the quarantine in NYC when the prospect of getting fresh produce was sketchy at best.

McKinnon wisely acknowledges that while eating seasonally is best, it’s also a luxury.  “While eating with the seasons may be easy and practical for some people, for others it is not” (20).   While her father was “right on the pulse of all the latest harvests” (20) as she was growing up, she also experienced having to rely on grocery store bought produce after his death.  Because of her life experiences, her advice and credo is this:  when you can eat seasonally, do it; when you can’t, don’t freak out.  More practical advice from the author:  keep bags of frozen vegetables in your freezer so you can improvise and get dinner on the table.

She shares her immense knowledge about all vegetables but I really enjoyed her first chapter on Asian greens.

One of the first revelations I had was that this definitely was NOT a book of side dishes and salads.  The very first recipe (under the Asian greens section) was a full blown entrée:  “Choy Sum and Feta Galette” (39).  Every single recipe in this chapter could be a full meal.

Next was the epiphany of broccoli.  How many delicious ways could she concoct to serve this often maligned vegetables?

  • Turmeric-Yogurt Roasted Broccoli (75)
  • Broccoli Wontons with Umami Crisp (78)
  • Longtime Broccoli, “a confit, of sorts,” to be served smeared on bread or stirred into pasta!!! (81)

Now, I know Brussels sprouts have been the “it” veggie for some time, but McKinnon elevates them even further with Sticky Gochujang Brussels Sprouts (95) and Brussels Spouts and Green Onion Oil Noodles (96) and Brussels-Sprouts-Instead-of-Egg Salad (99).

I just want to highlight a few other inventive recipes:

  • Cabbage:  Cabbage Carbonara-ish (118)
  • Carrot:  Carrot and Cannellini Bean Sheet-Pan Dinner with Yuzu Vinaigrette (134).
  • Celery:  this chapter alone is worth the price of the book.  How many times have you thrown an almost full stalk of limp celery away?
  • Eggplant:  Eggplant Katsu (186) and Chocolate-Eggplant Brownies (194)
  • Sweet Potato:  Sweet Potato Panang Curry Pizza (402)
  • Tomato:  Tomato and Gruyère Clafoutis (442)
  • Zucchini:  again, this chapter alone would be worth the cost of this cookbook!

Above is not a definitive list of the vegetables McKinnon highlights.  There’s a very large chapter on taro and the regular suspects like peas, potatoes, pumpkin and spinach are featured.  Fennel, ginger, kale, mushrooms (not a veggie but that’s OK), seaweed, turnip and daikon round out the total list.

Besides the inventive recipes, this cookbook is a kind remembrance of her father, the man who developed the “‘After-school snack’ as an official meal” (10) and who truly provided sustenance and goodness to his family before his untimely death.


Tenderheart is a hefty book and I can see why it made so many “best of” lists this past year.  One of the first things I’m going to make is the Umami Crisp (27) so I can drizzle it on everything, including the Broccoli Wontons mentioned above.

I’m linking up with Foodie Reads for December.

For all my recent cookbook reviews, click here.


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