The Best Way to Cook Asparagus and Other Tips From a Vegetarian Recipe Pro – The Wall Street Journal

FINDING HER WAY Hetty McKinnon at home in Brooklyn, beside a shelf of favorite cookbooks.

Photo: Maria Midoes for The Wall Street Journal

TEN YEARS AGO, when Hetty McKinnon started her lunch-delivery-by-bicycle service from her home in Sydney, she had zero culinary experience and no business plan. She hoped to show “the possibilities of vegetable-based eating without labels,” she said. Within two years of Arthur Street Kitchen’s launch, customer demand for the recipes was so high, she self-published a cookbook, “Community,” followed by two sequels.

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In 2015 Ms. McKinnon moved to Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband and three kids. She launched the journal Peddler in 2017, and her new cookbook, “To Asia, With Love” (Prestel), hit shelves this week. “Being away [from Australia] has forced me to find who I am and to reconcile all those influences that have been a part of my life,” she said. One of the strongest of those has been the Cantonese cooking of her mother, who immigrated to Australia from Guangdong province in southeast China. “Now that I’m an immigrant myself,” Ms. McKinnon said, “those feelings of displacement and trying to find where you belong in the world—I expressed all of that in the food.”

The pan I reach for most is: my wok, probably my most cherished possession. Sometime in the last 10 or 15 years, my mom gave me hers, which is about 50 years old. It’s old-school cast-iron, black through years of seasoning—nothing fancy. She used to make our fried eggs in there, the most incredible eggs you’ve ever seen, with that frilly edge. Also, a pan that sits permanently on my stove: a 10-inch Staub cast-iron, very well-seasoned, well-loved fry pan. The way I upkeep it is the way I learned to upkeep the wok: My mom would just rinse it out and then put it on her hob and burn it until it was bone dry.

A favorite cooking technique is: pan-frying. I also love roasting vegetables at a very high heat and coaxing that flavor out. When you cook at high heat, it brings out that smokiness. I really crave that charred edge on broccoli.

The wok Ms. McKinnon inherited from her mother.

Photo: Maria Midoes for The Wall Street Journal

An ingredient I’m excited about right now is: asparagus, the first taste of the new season. It has so much sweetness and earthiness, and all these intricate flavors going on. I usually pan-fry it, sear it a little bit. Then just salt and pepper. It’s the first sign of renewal, this year more than any other year.

My pantry is always stocked with: three or four types of chile oil: my own, the one that’s in “To Asia, With Love”—what I call the Everything Oil; the one from Fly by Jing; and then my old-school Lee Kum Kee-brand chiu chow; and a sambal oelek type. And I add the Burlap & Barrel Cobanero [chile flakes] to everything.

The cookbooks I turn to again and again are: the ones that have stories. I love Diana Henry’s “How to Eat a Peach.” She was kind of a hero to me, and that book in particular is so considered. It’s inspiring because she started keeping these menus from when she was 15 or 16. I love that lifelong dedication. Another book I really, really love—and more and more, the more I cook from it and read it—is “A Common Table” by Cynthia Chen McTernan. It tells personal stories of her family and her husband’s, and how they weave those influences together. And have you seen [Betty Liu’s] “My Shanghai”? It’s very regional, also very personal, combining a love for the city and her family. It’s such an atmospheric and immersive book.

The versatile homemade chile oil she calls Everything Oil.

Photo: Maria Midoes for The Wall Street Journal

On weeknights, I typically cook: a proper meal. There’s a lot of rice involved. I grew up eating rice every night for dinner, and it was a banquet every single time. Now it’s a staple, with lots of little savory dishes, things that are in “To Asia, With Love.” I probably make the salt and vinegar potato once a week. It’s like the kids’ favorite thing, a little bit crisp, with soy sauce and chile. When I don’t have any idea what I’m going to do, I find this comforting: I’ll just make a pot of rice and throw a few things together, almost like a formula.

The most important piece of kitchen wisdom I ever received was: cook things slowly. That came from my mom. There’s this savory steamed egg custard, a recipe that stumped me for years and years. It’s like a two-ingredient recipe—water and egg—and I just couldn’t get the texture right. I cook everything on high heat; that’s my way with vegetables. The day I thought maybe I’ll just try this low and slow thing—being very skeptical—it worked.

—Edited from an interview by Charlotte Druckman

Stir-Fried Salt and Vinegar Potato

This is a mash-up of three dishes: Tibetan alu sipsip (spicy sliced potatoes), Sichuan-inspired vinegary stir-fried potatoes, and salt-and-vinegar chips. In many Asian cultures it’s common to eat potatoes with rice. Slice your potatoes as uniformly as possible to ensure even cooking. The potato strips remain quite crispy after cooking, almost tender-crisp, like asparagus or sugar snap peas. Make sure you rinse the sliced potatoes thoroughly before cooking.

Total Time: 30 minutes

serves: 4

Maria Midoes for The Wall Street Journal

Ingredients

  • 2 large potatoes (about 22 ounces), peeled and julienne into matchsticks
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil or chile oil
  • 2–4 dried red chiles, with seeds removed if you prefer less heat
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • ½ green bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon malt, white or apple-cider vinegar
  • Sea salt and white pepper
  • Cooked rice, to serve

Directions

  1. Rinse potato matchsticks under cold running water to remove excess starch, continuing until water runs somewhat clear. Drain very well.
  2. In a wok or large frying pan over medium–high heat, toss together oil and chiles for 30 seconds. Add potato matchsticks, garlic and bell peppers, and stir-fry until the potato is just soft, but still with a little crunch, 5–6 minutes. Remove from heat and add tamari and vinegar. Season well with sea salt and white pepper. Serve with rice.

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