The Roasting Tin series sold over 950,000 copies and The Green Barbecue promises to spice up summer, whatever the weather. Their author Rukmini Iyer talks to Amanda Morison about packing in the flavour, and why washing up for a food stylist proved a better career fit for her than practicing law.
You’ve spent time on TV recently talking about your new book. Are you starting to get recognised when out and about?
We’ve had an offer accepted on a house, and when we looked around saw a copy of The Roasting Tin. It was quite a shock for me and for the house owner, who said they were cooking one of the recipes that evening! I was recently spotted while out walking my dog, who the person even knew was called Pepper. I was with nice hair and make-up because I’d come from an audition. I bet she wouldn’t have recognised me in my usual scruffy dog walking clothes with my hair scraped back.
You seem very calm in front of the cameras.
The cameras feel as though they are miles away, maybe partly because of Covid, which makes an interview feel like having a conversation. I was worried I’d be nervous, so had a bit of media training. The trainer advised me to think about filming as having fun – if you are relaxed you’ll come across well. It would fill me with more horror if I had to do more of the organising. Everything is laid out in little bowls ready to cook – there’s none of the usual scrabbling in cupboards looking for a spatula.
You started your food career as a stylist, after training as a lawyer. Quite a leap?
I did that thing you do if you don’t like your job and Googled things I could do instead. Food styling came up and with it the realisation that every picture I’ve ever loved in a cookbook or a Marks & Spencer food advert had been made by someone. I contacted a few stylists in full Hugh Grant style – terribly sorry, do you mind awfully answering these five really very short questions… – and got the most lovely responses. One even had a fee structure which I ended up using.
How did you get started?
I went to cookery school, did a stint in a restaurant and then started assisting stylists. It’s a bit like an apprenticeship, you learn by helping a senior stylist and become part of the equivalent of a Formula 1 team – washing up, chopping and noticing if the stylist has forgotten to take her tweezers on set.
Do you ever regret giving up the law?
It says a lot that washing up on set was more fun than working through legal documents. I’ve never looked back, but my boyfriend and lots of my friends are lawyers and one thing you can always say about them is that they have good chat.
What was the first thing you remember cooking as a child?
Probably something like chocolate rice crispies or flapjacks. My mother was very chilled about my sister and I helping out in the kitchen.
You’re known for packing in lots of flavour. Where do you get your inspiration from?
Some are based on perfume. There’s a Blackberry & Bay Jo Malone fragrance I love, so I made it into a cake. All food writers are indebted to Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus. It gives flavour compounds written in a non-science way that have you laughing out loud. You might want to cook with broccoli and you’ll discover it goes with anchovies and bacon. If I’m stuck for inspiration and need three butternut squash recipes by Friday, I’ll go to her book.
Your advice to someone starting out?
Get as much experience as possible. Cookery school is a very helpful place to start because you’ll immerse yourself in techniques that are different to anything needed as a home cook. And when you work in a restaurant you discover that chefs work like lightening. There’s so much learning in that environment – if you manage not to drop a knife on yourself it will really pay off.
Don’t fake it. If you are genuinely interested in something, people respond really well.
Most helpful advice you’ve been given?
Don’t fake it. If you are genuinely interested in something, people respond really well and ask for advice. I’ve been astonished by how willing people are to help you. I approached a publisher at a party and she said she couldn’t publish my book but she would give me feedback. I think of it as a women’s network because publishing is so female dominated. It’s nice to think my career has been a series of older women taking the time to help me and now it’s my turn to do the same thing.
Do you have any mentors?
Pene Parker designs all my books and was the art director at BBC Books. It’s been incredibly helpful working with someone so experienced and I’m so lucky to be able to get so involved with the design process.
The typical garden barbecue is pretty average, but your recipes include crispy gnocchi and gunpowder potatoes!
I ghost-wrote a barbecue book a while back and there was so much I wanted to do differently. Some of my recipes are big, like charred squash which you need to cook at different temperatures. Others like the Aubergine, Halloumi & Oregano Rolls take minutes. Thinly slice the aubergine and cook for a minute on each side. Take off and roll up bits of halloumi with lemon zest and oregano, and let the aubergine get crisp and the halloumi all melty. The Padron Peppers with Feta are easy and eye-catching too.
Do you have a motto for life?
It’s not the end of the world! There’s a minimal amount of things that can actually go wrong when you’re cooking. I’m lucky enough to work in a nice job that’s about sharing with family and friends.
Chipotle Mushroom & Black Bean Burgers with Peanuts & Lime
These burgers are ridiculously moreish – I like to serve them in buns with mayonnaise and pickles.
Serves: 4 Prep: 20 minutes Cook: 25 minutes
50g smooth peanut butter
1 x 400g tin of black beans, drained, but not rinsed
2 small cloves of garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons chipotle chilli flakes
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 heaped tablespoon rye flour
1 lime, zest only
1 teaspoon sea salt flakes
250g chestnut mushrooms
1 lime, cut into 4 wedges
A handful of chopped salted peanuts
A handful of chopped fresh coriander
4 burger buns
Put the peanut butter into a food processor with 60g of the black beans, the garlic, chilli flakes, cumin, olive oil, rye flour, lime zest and sea salt flakes, and blitz until you have a very thick paste. Tip it into a large bowl and stir in the rest of the black beans.
Tip the mushrooms into the processor and pulse until you have a dry mushroom mince. Stir this into the black bean mixture. With damp hands, form it into four thick burgers and arrange them on a lined baking sheet.
Bake in the oven at 180C fan/200C/gas 6 for 25–30 minutes. When they’ve got 10 minutes left, gently flip them over so they can crisp up on the other side.
They’re ready to serve straight from the oven, but for a nice bit of smokiness you can let them cool down, then finish them on a medium barbecue for a couple of minutes per side.
Squeeze over the lime wedges and top with a handful of chopped peanuts and coriander, then sandwich them into lightly grilled burger buns.
Recipe from The Green Barbeque (Vegan & Vegetarian Recipes to Cook Outdoors & in) by Rukmini Iyer.£17.99 waterstones.co.uk
This article features in the Summer issue of ‘Noticed’ magazine