Community, Neighbourhood, Family: Meet bestselling cookbook author Hetty McKinnon

Family by Hetty McKinnon.
Family by Hetty McKinnon. Photo: Luisa Brimble

Hetty McKinnon knows her cookbooks are loved by Australians, but living on the other side of the world in New York has also made her oblivious to their gargantuan success.

Sometimes she's reminded when ABC presenter Annabel Crabb raves about a recipe on her Chat 10, Looks 3 podcast, or when she receives a heartfelt message from a reader, but for the most part the Sydney-born author says she likes to hide out in her new hometown.

Her 2014 debut book Community remains on bestseller lists four years after its release and has sold more than 100,000 copies, becoming a fixture of bookstores and kitchens around the country, acclaimed for its delicious salads and vegetable-based meals.

"Part of me is very uncomfortable with the success and that is probably a cultural thing also," McKinnon says of her Chinese upbringing. "I'm so overwhelmed that it's happening and Community continues to sell and sell."

We're sitting down for lunch at McKinnon's Brooklyn kitchen table where she has prepared a feast based on the recipes in her third and upcoming cookbook, Family.

But the mother of three and former PR professional never set out to write one of Australia's most celebrated cookbooks. Community was intended for customers of her salad delivery service, Arthur Street Kitchen, who begged her for the recipes she prepared out of her Surry Hills home. McKinnon self-published the first 1000 copies.

Cookbook author Hetty McKinnon with her family in her new hometown of New York.
Cookbook author Hetty McKinnon with her family in her new hometown of New York.  Photo: Luisa Brimble

"This was written for five people so it's a little bit mind-blowing," she says, laughing.

Shortly after the book was picked up by Plum/Pan Macmillan Australia and became a bestseller, McKinnon did the unexpected and packed up her young family, following her husband's work to New York where she wrote her second book, Neighbourhood, during one of the city's brutal winters.

Her third book, Family, follows McKinnon's ethos of comforting, vegetable-based recipes meant to be shared with family and friends, but this time it's deliberately pared-back.

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"As a family when you eat together – not even as a family, but when you're around the table with your friends – you want foods that are very comforting, particularly things that you eat on a nightly basis.

"These meals are the least daunting of all the books, I think. I don't find my recipes hard. I come from a place where all my readers come from. I'm a home cook just like them."

The subject of each book begins organically. With Community, the food was based on the community she had built in Surry Hills. In Neighbourhood, she created meals inspired by her new surrounds in New York. And in Family, McKinnon is inspired by multiculturalism and her mother's cooking.

It's not about chefs. It's about home cooks, which I am.

A Chinese Australian, McKinnon is hugely passionate about culture, and Family is a deeply personal collection of recipes from her family and others, who share their food and anecdotes.

"I don't want to be one of those authors who produce four books a year. For me, it's very much a cohesive story. There has to be a story there for me to write a book.

"Everything I do is very organic. My publishers never tell me to write a book. I say 'This is where I'm headed' and they allow me to do that."

While in New York, McKinnon has also launched biannual food journal Peddler, which she says gives voice to stories and recipes that "probably wouldn't be told in mainstream press". A podcast is also in the works.

"I can't see these stories in Bon Appetit. It's not about chefs. It's about home cooks, which I am, which my mother was before me and so it's just … I find it just so fulfilling in so many ways and people love it. People are really into it."

McKinnon is gearing up for a month-long tour for Family's release this month, but for the most part she has left the books to their own devices, making their wild popularity even more baffling to their author.

"A lot of its success I know is from people who've gone to someone's house, have tried a recipe and gone 'Oh my god, what is this recipe?' and they go home and buy the book and then they tell their friends."

To me that's so amazing because that's the spirit in which it was written; that spirit of sharing and gathering with people."

Family by Hetty McKinnon is published by Plum, RRP $39.99.

Add a splash of vodka to your pasta sauce. Photo: Luisa Brimble

Vodka pasta

Vodka sauce, along with caesar salad, spaghetti and meatballs and chicken parmigiana, is a great Italian-American invention. Vodka sauce, traditionally served with penne, is a rich and creamy sauce with a signature pinkish salmon colour. The purpose of the vodka is a contentious issue, but most seem to think it helps release the flavours in tomato. Others say it acts as an emulsifier to keep the acid and cream stable. Regardless, vodka sauce would simply not be the same without vodka. It adds a bright bite and balances out the sweetness of the creamy tomatoes.

INGREDIENTS

extra-virgin olive oil

1 large broccoli head (about 500g), cut into small florets

500g pasta

150g (1 cup) peas, frozen or fresh

handful of basil leaves

sea salt and black pepper

grated parmesan, to serve

Vodka sauce

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 brown onion, finely diced

2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped

500g tomatoes, roughly chopped

80ml (¹⁄₃ cup) vodka

120g mascarpone

50g (½ cup) grated parmesan

handful of basil leaves, torn sea salt

METHOD

1. Heat a drizzle of oil in a large frying pan over a high heat and add the broccoli florets. Cook on each side for two minutes, until charred.

2. For the vodka sauce, heat a large pan over a medium heat. Add the oil and onion along with a big pinch of sea salt and cook for five to six minutes, until the onion is softened and starting to caramelise. Add the garlic, tomatoes and a pinch of salt and cook for one minute.

3. Remove the pan from the heat and add the vodka, then return the pan to the heat and cook on medium for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, to allow the alcohol to cook off. Add the mascarpone and parmesan and stir.

4. Remove from the heat and add the basil. At this point, the sauce is ready, though if you prefer a smooth sauce you can whizz it up in a food processor or with a hand-held blender.

5. While the sauce cooks, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the pasta, stirring. Cook according to the packet instructions until al dente. In the last 30 seconds of cooking, add the peas to blanch. Reserve 125 millilitres (½ cup) of the pasta cooking water and drain the pasta and peas. Add the hot pasta and peas to the vodka sauce along with a splash of cooking water and toss until combined. To serve, season with sea salt and black pepper, scatter with basil leaves and top with the charred broccoli and extra parmesan.

Serves 4

Choc-orange self-saucing pudding

This recipe belongs to my mother-in-law, Theresa McKinnon. Theresa bakes the old-fashioned way – with simple ingredients and humble flavours. Her dessert recipes are an homage to Australian country baking, clever little gems that never fail to impress. This self-saucing pudding is one of her best. How does a pudding self-sauce? The process is a little strange – cake batter, topped by a layer of sugar and cocoa, followed by boiling water – but trust it. Through alchemy, chemistry, or just plain magic, the flour rises to the top and the heavier sauce falls to the bottom. Simple. And simply incredible.

INGREDIENTS

125ml (½ cup) milk

1 egg

80g butter, melted and cooled

1 tbsp orange juice

zest of 1 orange

1 tsp vanilla extract

150g (1 cup) self-raising flour

2 tbsp cocoa powder

115g (½ cup) brown sugar

berries, to serve

whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, to serve

Chocolate sauce

2 tbsp cocoa powder

165g (¾ cup) brown sugar

310ml (1¼ cups) boiling water

METHOD

1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease a 1.5-litre pudding steamer, Pyrex bowl or baking dish.

2. Lightly whisk together the milk, egg, butter, orange juice, orange zest and vanilla extract until well combined. Sift the flour and cocoa powder into a large bowl and stir in the brown sugar. Add the milk mixture to the dry mixture and gently fold together until everything is combined and smooth.

3. Spoon the batter into the pudding steamer, bowl or baking dish.

4. For the chocolate sauce, combine the cocoa and brown sugar and sprinkle this over the pudding. Very slowly, pour the boiling water over the back of a large metal spoon over the pudding (this helps the water land more gently, without disturbing the batter).

5. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the pudding bounces back when pressed in the centre. To serve, scoop a big spoonful of pudding into a bowl and top with berries and a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice-cream.

Family by Hetty McKinnon is published by Plum, RRP $39.99.