Get to know food stylist, food writer and author of The Roasting Tin, Rukmini Iyer with our exclusive Q&A. We talk comfort food, family cooking memories and why Rukmini is obsessed with the concept of one-tin cooking.
Can you tell us a bit more about your cookbook?
Of course! It’s about cooking entire dinners in a roasting tin, with a structured element – each chapter (on fish, chicken, veg, grains etc.) opens with unique mix and match infographics, so readers can follow the recipes or create pretty much an infinite variety of their own tray bakes depending on their mood, what’s in the fridge or what catches their eye at the supermarket on the way home. It’s designed to be brightly coloured and joyful and the gorgeous photographs, by David Loftus, of all the food in roasting tins shows you what your dinner should look like when it gets out of the oven.
Why the concept of the roasting tin?
While it’s often lovely to stand at the stove prodding and stirring a few different saucepans or frying pans, sometimes, after a long day at work, you just don’t have the time or inclination. The concept of the book is to let the oven do the work – you chop things for about five minutes while your oven heats up, chuck the tray of chopped things in the oven, then you’ve got 20, 30, 40 minutes or an hour to go and do something else – help the kids with their homework, have a bath, grab a drink and watch an episode of The Good Wife – before voila, dinner has made itself. It’s flavoursome, home made food, with little more inconvenience than opening a ready meal and sticking it in the oven. The concept is low effort, maximum flavour food for busy people.
If you had to pick one recipe to show off what your book will be about, which one would it be and why?
My favourite dish varies depending on mood, but I would say one of the best is the five spice duck with wild rice, kale and ginger. It’s everything the book is about – you cook the rice, the duck and the kale all together under foil in a roasting tin, with a punchy mix of sesame oil, ginger, garlic and five spice, so that the rice takes on the flavour of the duck and the seasonings, and it’s just a scatter of chilli and sliced spring onion to serve. It is so incredibly flavoursome, a balanced meal and requires no effort other than tipping everything in the tin and coming back 50 minutes later.
Are you from a family of great cooks? How did you get interested in cooking and food?
Yes indeed, my mother is a brilliant cook, and my father is also pretty good, albeit a bit rusty. His mother was a wonderful cook and taught all three of her boys to be more than competent in the kitchen, but as my mother is so good, Dad doesn’t get behind the stove that often. Mum is definitely the reason that I became interested in food and cooking. She can turn her hand to any sort of dish – both Indian and Western, sometimes Chinese. She’s had these massive files full of cut outs from the Sunday supplements for as long as I can remember, and her enthusiasm for cooking new dishes and reading about food definitely influenced me as a small child, graduating from fairy cakes and flapjacks (a version of her recipe is in The Roasting Tin) to three course dinners that she’d let my sister and I plan, shop for and make in the school holidays. It was such a fun and creative exercise (and must have kept us quiet for a couple of days).
Is there an ingredient you are really enjoying cooking with at the moment?
Toasted sesame oil. I used to really dislike it, but I’ve been getting through ridiculous quantities recently in dressings in combination with lime juice, ginger, garlic and chilli, and sometimes a bit of fish sauce, which is probably my second favourite ingredient at the moment. Poured over fish, meatballs, chicken, long stem broccoli, green beans – it gives so much flavour!
What’s your comfort food?
Freshly cooked basmati rice, stirred through with cashew nuts fried in butter with bay leaves, cloves, a very small piece of cinnamon, and cardamom pods. Sometimes I leave out all the spices and just bash some saffron with milk and stir that in. Actually that’s probably it - saffron rice and cashew nuts, sometimes almonds.
If we had a look in your fridge, what would we be bound to find?
What wouldn’t you find! It’s always packed, either with half opened packets of what everyone else on a food shoot didn’t want, or with ingredients ready to go to the next job. On the two shelves that are crammed to the gills with my food, there’s always several bottles of harissa, Dijon mustard, sometimes sun dried tomatoes. Usually a packet of pancetta, for late night carbonara fixes, definitely some eggs, which live in or out of the fridge depending on space, and always a packet of spinach, because I love spinach and eggs.
Where’s your favourite place to eat out?
I really like Skylon for special occasions, for the service and the view over the river and the mid-century, Jetsons style futuristic feel. But eating out usually seems to involve charcuterie or cheese boards with wine – I have yet to find a local that I would go back to every week.
Here at The Happy Foodie, we're totally obsessed with cookbooks. Can you tell us a bit about the favourites in your collection?
Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus is without doubt the most thumbed and used – the recipes in it are spot on, and it is so good for getting inspiration without necessarily following a recipe. Nigella’s How to Eat for general reading, so ahead of its time, and Domestic Goddess for Granny Boyd’s biscuits and the butter cut out cookies, which are really the only type of biscuits that I like to make. Back when I flirted with restaurant cooking, I was obsessed with Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry cookbook, and I still use it for the sweet potato agnolotti with bacon and sage cream as it’s a nice simple recipe. Ruby Tandoh’s Flavour for the Ghanaian chicken and peanut stew and glitzy hot chocolate, and I have about six recipes lined up from Georgie Hayden’s Stirring Slowly – I love sitting with a new cookbook and a packet of post it notes and marking up what to make next.
Let’s play foodie Cluedo. You can cook one dish, for one person, in one location. Who, what and where?
I would cook ulundhu vadai (a South Indian fluffy lentil doughnut – you soak the lentils, blitz them to a paste with curry leaves and seasonings, then with damp hands form them into doughnut shapes and deep fry them – they are incredibly soft and fluffy inside and ever so slightly crispy on the outside), and serve it with coriander chutney for my paternal grandmother Vasantha, who passed away when I was a teenager. I didn’t get to spend enough time with her, as she lived in the USA, and I would love to have her over to my flat, so that she could see where I live, and cook them for her, as it’s her handwritten recipe, which I only learned to make last year. She spent her entire life cooking because it was traditional, not from choice, but I would hope that she was proud of me, for being able to make one of her dishes, and for making a living doing the thing I love.
Want to get your hands on a copy of Rukmini's cookbook, The Roasting Tin? Order your copy here.
We've also been cooking from The Roasting Tin to celebrate its release. Read our thoughts on cooking the recipes at home here.