When Rukmini Iyer moved back in with her parents during the first lockdown, she 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 Rukmini admitting 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 Rukmini’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,” says Rukmini, whose parents are both vegetarian.
“It was 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.”
Rukmini 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, as 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 some similarities with her smash-hit Roasting Tin series of books which 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, 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. “I live in London in a flat,” says Rukmini. “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, Rukmini’s top piece of advice is “you don’t have to barbecue everything – you can take loads of things with you, and maybe barbecue just 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. Rukmini’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 Rukmini, 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.” Sounds exactly the kind we need, particularly if you’re suffering from re-entry anxiety as lockdown eases.
Rukmini 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.”
Aubergine and goat’s cheese burger stacks with honey and thyme
You won’t miss your normal beef burger with this easy and delicious veggie recipe.
Rukmini Iyer’s mother helped test all of her recipes for The Green Barbecue, and her favourite dishes are “any of the ones with cheese”.
This recipe for aubergine and goat’s cheese burger stacks is the perfect mix of creamy, herby sweet and charred – and they barely take any time at all.
Iyer recommends putting them on a hot grill because it’s something you “just want a really quick char on the outside, and that’s actually fine”.
- 2 large, evenly sized aubergines
- 2 x 100g rind-on goat’s cheese wheels
- A handful of fresh lemon thyme sprigs
- Olive oil, for brushing
- Sea salt flakes
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Runny honey
- Crusty bread rolls, to serve
Cut the aubergines into 1cm slices, and the goat’s cheese into very thin rounds. Sandwich each piece of goat’s cheese between two similarly sized slices of aubergine, along with a sprig of thyme. Brush both sides of the aubergine with oil and add a tiny pinch of sea salt flakes and black pepper.
Once your barbecue is ready, place the aubergine stacks on the grill and cook for 10–15 minutes per side, until the aubergine is cooked through and the cheese has melted. You can flip them every five to six minutes or so and give them a brush with olive oil.
Transfer to a serving platter, drizzle with honey, scatter over the remaining thyme, and serve with crusty rolls on the side.
The Green Barbecue: Vegan & Vegetarian Recipes To Cook Outdoors & In by Rukmini Iyer, photography by David Loftus, Square Peg, £17.99, out now
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