Food writer Rukmini Iyer is here to revolutionise our summer barbecue
When Rukmini Iyer moved back in with her parents during the first lockdown of 2020, she accidentally found herself with the most honest recipe testers she could have hoped for.
“My mum doesn’t really hold back on constructive criticism,” the food writer and cook admits. “I think her words are, ‘If I don’t tell you, then who will?'”
But that honesty came in useful, with Iyer saying it was “really helpful to get her feedback” – particularly as she used the time to write her latest cookbook dedicated to veggie and vegan barbecue recipes.
Both Iyer’s parents are GPs – her mother is now retired, but her father was still working. “So dad was at the surgery, but he likes to pop back for lunch because it’s not too far – so I tried to have things rolling off the barbecue in time for him to have a quick lunch before he went back to the surgery,” she says.
“It was very nice because as an adult, you don’t spend that much time with your parents. It was lovely to have them around and be able to cook a book where they could eat everything” – both her parents are vegetarian.
As well as being a way to bond with her family, Iyer fell in love with the therapeutic elements of barbecuing. “It was probably just being outside a lot,” she confesses. “I wrote the book during the first lockdown – I was in my parents’ garden and I didn’t want to spend any time indoors, because it felt strange to be in that lockdown situation.
“I was even doing all the prep outside. I was taking a chopping board, all my veg, a couple of little bowls, doing all the prep outside and sitting and waiting for the barbecue to light. It was maximising being in open space.”
She also found it a “more mindful way to cook”, while still sharing sharing some similarities with her smash hit Roasting Tin series of books which all focus on easy, one pan meals you bung in the oven. “With this one, it’s similar in you just have to chop some things, put them on the barbecue, take them off and put a nice dressing on,” she says.
“But you’ve got that added element I think is interesting, where you have to be quite watchful. You learn to understand how your barbecue is working. You think about when it’s hot, when it’s not. You’re standing in front of it and it’s a visual and very tactile way to cook – I like that added element that you’re very close to the cooking process.”
There was another added benefit to decamping to her parents’ house: space. “Having an outdoor space – I live in London in a flat, so usually I’m not really able to,” Iyer says. “But even though I was doing all the barbecuing in my parents’ garden, I was very much thinking, ‘What’s portable? What can I do on a small barbecue?’
“You can’t assume everyone’s got a massive Weber range – you might just be using a small one you got from TK Maxx. So at some points when I was testing I had about three barbecues on the go: I had a big TK Maxx bucket, a little Heston Blumenthal grill, a nice tabletop little Prakti stove – trying to think about the ways in which people who maybe don’t always have access to outdoor space can still make something really nice.”
If you’re barbecuing in the park and can’t whip in and out of the kitchen, Iyer’s top piece of advice is “you don’t have to barbecue everything – you can take loads of things with you, and maybe barbecue one or two little elements”.
As the weather starts to brighten, many of us will be looking to fire up our barbecues as an easy way to see friends and family outdoors. Iyer’s book offers an alternative to the meat fiestas we’re used to, and she hopes it will encourage barbecue novices to give green dishes a go.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” asks Iyer, adding a safety disclaimer that you should be extremely careful with fire. “Get a feel for how hot it is – I think that’s the key takeaway. You can put almost anything on a barbecue, but to coax maximum flavour from it, you want to make sure you’re watching it like a hawk.
“If it’s too hot and things are getting too burnt, just take them off, let it cool down, and put them back on. It’s sort of slowing down, this kind of cooking” – exactly the kind we need, particularly if you’re suffering from re-entry anxiety as lockdown eases.
Iyer loves how barbecuing is “big, generous platters of food” to share with your loved ones. With a background in food styling, she knows how to make dishes look beautiful – and al fresco dining isn’t about “little primped plates of food”.
She says: “The nice thing about a barbecue is you’ve got lots of platters of food, things coming off the barbecue at different times. If you throw over some herbs, make a nice dressing, toast some nuts – I would describe it as Ottolenghi-style sharing platters, which is easy to make look beautiful.
“It looks generous, because it is.”
The Green Barbecue: Vegan & Vegetarian Recipes To Cook Outdoors & In by Rukmini Iyer, photography by David Loftus, is published by Square Peg, priced £17.99. Available now.