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For Hetty Lui McKinnon, ‘Salads Are Very Much My Soul Food’

The author of the new cookbook ‘Tenderheart’ turns bread, dip, salad, and cheese into an any-season dinner

Hetty McKinnon sits on a stoop next to a big plate of cucumber and tomato salad on toast. Illustration. Daniela Jordan-Villaveces

We all could use a little dinner inspiration — even Ali Slagle, who dreams of dinner. In “Dinner Is Served,” she asks colleagues about one night when they somehow transformed ingredients into dinner with all this life going on.

This month’s installment: More than anyone else, cookbook author and recipe developer Hetty Lui McKinnon has provided home cooks with joyous, comforting, at-times surprising ways to cook vegetables. We hit the jackpot with her latest book, Tenderheart, one of Eater’s best books of spring—it weaves stories of her dad’s days working at a wholesale produce market through recipes for her 22 favorite fruits and vegetables. Any night, probably more than one gets a seat at her dinner table.

Salads are very much my soul food. I have an entire career basically built around the foundations of loving vegetable-based salads. Last night, I made a recipe that I’ve really been making for most of my adult life. I think you only really need to make it once to have it ingrained in your brain how to make it and how delicious it is.

It’s basically a cucumber and tomato salad served on top of a piece of toasted sourdough or other bread. On top of the salad there’s halloumi and then on top of that, there’s some tzatziki (the Greek yogurt dip). The dish itself came from a restaurant in Sydney which I used to eat at for lunch when I worked in PR many decades ago. The actual recipe I actually did include in my first book Community, which I wrote a decade ago, but now I really don’t use the recipe when I’m making it for my family. I just free-wheel and wing it.

First, I make tzatziki. Of course, you can buy one if that’s easy for you. But I usually grate two Persian cucumbers if they’re small; if they’re bigger you can just use one. Squeeze out all of the liquid so it’s not too runny. Then I add that to Greek yogurt, add some dried mint or you can also use fresh mint. I grate in one small garlic clove and then I add some extra-virgin olive oil, and then my little trick is to add a bit of a sweetener. Nowadays I don’t eat honey as much or really at all so I actually sweeten it with a teaspoon of maple syrup. Then you season it really well with salt and black pepper and that’s basically your tzatziki. And of course, as I said earlier, you can just buy tzatziki. It’s way easier.

So next I move on to the salad-y bit. I cut about six Roma tomatoes into cubes and then I cut about four Persian cucumbers into similar-sized shapes to the tomatoes and then I added some black kalamata olives. You can just really use whatever olives you have, some grated garlic (one clove grated garlic), and then some fresh oregano and mint leaves. Of course, then I dress it with quite a lot of olive oil—about a quarter of a cup, maybe a bit more—and also a little bit of red wine vinegar just to bring some tartness, a teaspoon or two. Of course we need to season it really well with sea salt and black pepper and then the salad is done.

The next step is to slice the halloumi into five-millimeter slices… what’s that in inches? Maybe that’s about a ¼-inch slice of halloumi. You can tell I’ve been a recipe developer too long since I measure the thickness of my halloumi. Heat up a skillet over medium heat, wait for it to get really hot and then add some olive oil and fry the halloumi on each side, for about a minute until it gets nice and golden.

The last step is really just putting it together. I get my slices of bread, sourdough or ciabatta… something crusty. I usually rub the pieces of bread with a garlic clove and then just give them a quick toast in my grill pan so they get those nice char marks, but you really don’t have to do that: You can just serve this on a normal piece of bread that you’ve just cut. What I like about not toasting it is the bread becomes soggy. Normally soggy is not something that’s very glamorous in food, but it is just incredibly joyous in this salad when you have the soggy bread at the bottom to soak up all the juices from the tomatoes and the cucumbers and the olive oil.

So you put the bread on the bottom of the plate, you put a pile of your tomato and cucumber mixture on top of the bread, then you top the salad with a few slices of halloumi, then you spoon or dollop over some of the tzatziki and then you drizzle with more olive oil, more cracked pepper and that was our dinner last night.

Even though it’s actually bread with salad and cheese and dip, I call this a salad because I tend to salad-ify a lot of meals for some reason. I just love their tossed nature and the fact that they can be eaten at room temperature means I can prep ahead and do lots of legwork earlier in the day.

Ali Slagle is a recipe developer, stylist, and — most important of all — home cook. She’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times and Washington Post, and her cookbook is called I Dream of Dinner (So You Don’t Have To): Low-Effort, High-Reward Recipes.
Daniela Jordan-Villaveces is a creative director and illustrator. She was born in Bogotá and raised between Colombia, the Netherlands, and the U.S. She currently lives in sunny Los Angeles with her husband, their son, Lou, two kittens, and a pup.