Cookbooks fall into a few distinct categories. There are the hardback tomes, filled with photographs of impossibly perfect ceviche de aguja and designed to splay aspirationally over hardwood coffee tables, rather than splattered with passata next to a bubbling stove. The ones whose words are as nourishing as the recipes they describe (thank u Nigel Slater) and those that encapsulate an entire generation’s approach to cooking. Ottolenghi: The Cookbook for Islington-dwelling thirty-somethings; Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course for their parents.
And then there are the cookbooks that you actually use for cooking.
The Roasting Tin: Simple One Dish Dinners sits firmly in the last camp. A utilitarian rectangle-shaped book, it contains over 75 recipes for easy tray bake meals. The aesthetic is very much “baiting time-pressed millennials.” Every recipe in The Roasting Tin promises near-instant gratification with minimal cooking effort, and is accompanied by a tasty Instagram-style overhead shot of the finished dish. There are avocados on the front cover and you can buy it in Oliver Bonas.
“I definitely wanted it to be full of recipes I’d want to make,” says Rukmini Iyer, food stylist and author of The Roasting Tin. “You start by submitting a long list—I do about 60 for a book. You think of things, like what’s the flavouring going to be? What’s the crunchy element? How’s it going to get some acidity? So when it’s time to start testing things, I know which ones are the good ones and which ones need tweaking. If I don’t really want to make it, no one else will.”
You will want to make everything in The Roasting Tin. I have, pretty much. Spiced roast cauliflower with sweet potato and okra when friends are coming over; courgettes and aubergine scattered with feta for after-work dinners; slow-roasted ras el-hanout mushrooms on lazy Sunday afternoons. I’ve bought copies for friends and family members, and have yet to find anyone who isn’t impressed by the ease (chop stuff! Add some seasoning! Throw it in the oven and forget about it!) and flavourful payoff of a good tray bake. Dads everywhere love the sausage casserole recipe.
This week, a year after The Roasting Tin’s publication, Iyer brings out a follow-up, The Green Roasting Tin: Vegan and Vegetarian One Dish Dinners. I don’t think I have been this excited about a sequel since Shrek 2.
Keen to find out more about the new book, I get in touch with Iyer and we arrange to meet at her home in East London. When I arrive, she is in the middle of baking a sponge cake (“I thought we needed something to have with our coffee first”) and welcomes me into the living room, where a warm breeze drifts in through the balcony door.
Over slices of icing sugar-dusted cake, I manage to tell Iyer how much I loved The Roasting Tin, particularly the okra recipe, without stanning too hard.
“That’s great, I’m so glad!” she smiles. “Yeah, I think roasted okra is the way forward. Sometimes people don’t like it because it gets slimy.”
Iyer’s route into the food world was unconventional. After studying English at university, she took a training contract with a legal firm. She hated it, but promised her mum she would stick it out for two years to gain the qualification. Her real passion was food.
“I really liked cooking a lot but I didn’t want to be a restaurant chef—the hours just sound horrific,” Iyer says. “I read about this job, food styling, online and thought, ‘This sounds perfect.’”
Lawyer training grudgingly completed, Iyer enrolled in the Edinburgh New Town Cookery School. The day after she paid the deposit for the course, she received a call from the BBC. They’d received the application she sent for MasterChef some months back, when she was feeling particularly fed up with her legal job, and invited her to audition for the 2013 series. It would clash with the first week of cookery school but Iyer managed to defer her start date. She made it through the audition and into the final seven for that year.
Following her unexpected MasterChef appearance and eventual culinary training, Iyer completed a stage as a pastry chef and began assisting on food styling shoots. It was the resulting long days in the kitchen that inspired The Roasting Tin.
“Because of a cooking job where you’re standing up all day, my feet hurt so much. I’d come home and sometimes put my feet in a bucket of water like a Victorian charlady!” she laughs. “But I still wanted to eat something fresh when I got in.”
Tray bakes were an obvious solution. Cheap, packed with vegetables, easy to flavour with store cupboard spices, and requiring little more prep than chopping and mixing simple dressings.
“Since I was doing tray bakes when I came in from work, it kind of occured to me—other people also don’t like standing up when they get home,” Iyer says. “I thought, ‘Could you do a whole book of these tray bakes?’”
You could. Iyer’s tray bake cookbook idea was picked up by Square Peg. Now a fully fledged food stylist, she had the contacts and experience in the industry to make The Roasting Tin look exactly as she wanted. Photographer David Loftus, known for his work with Jamie Oliver, and designer Penelope Parker came onboard to help realise her vision of a brightly coloured tray bake flick-book.
“I just wanted it to be really simple,” Iyer says. “I love lifestyle cookery books where you see a bit of someone’s beautiful table, but I think Ruby Tandoh wrote something about how these lifestyle books, they’re not really real. I guess it’s nice just to know that this is how the dish will look when it comes out and it doesn’t matter if your table is the same or you don’t have beautiful linen tablecloths.”
The design of The Roasting Tin and The Green Roasting Tin isn’t its only selling point. Iyer’s cookbooks reflect the cosmopolitan way in which most of us now like to eat. She is a magpie for flavour, picking ingredients, dishes, and seasonings from disparate world cuisines and transforming them into achievable weeknight dishes. In The Green Roasting Tin, tabbouleh and classic French gratins sits beside pasta bakes, Thai curries, and Mediterranean aubergines.
“There’s the odd curry in it,” she says, referencing her British Indian heritage, “but to be honest, there’s as much Middle Eastern stuff as there is vaguely Asian lime juice and sesame oil, so I don’t know if that’s cultural appropriation but it’s just … ”
She pauses. “I think it’s delicious,” I say.
“I think it’s also just using stuff from the supermarket,” she replies. “I’ve only really got a bit more adventurous with ingredients recently—everything is meant to be stuff that you could pick up on your way home. There’s nothing in [the book] that you couldn’t get from a Tesco Metro or Sainsbury's Local.”
Given the current trend for vegetarian and vegan eating, a meat-free cookbook seems like a savvy follow-up. But Iyer tells me that the idea for The Green Roasting Tin, which contains exactly half vegan and half vegetarian dishes categorised into “quick,” “medium,” and “slow” cooking times, actually came from her mum.
“My mum and dad are vegetarian so with The Roasting Tin, I didn’t want it to be a book where it was just a filo pastry tart, so that was quite veg-heavy. Then I was thinking about the veggie recipes in it and I was like, ‘Could you do a whole book like that?’”
Miso aubergine with tofu, sesame, and chili is one of Iyer’s favourites from the new book. I follow her into a well-stocked kitchen (there is an entire cupboard just for spices), where she shows me how easy the Japanese-inspired tray bake is to prepare.
“Soy, ginger, garlic, and chili in the dressing is just my favourite combination,” she explains, slicing two fat aubergines in half and scoring the flesh. “I also wanted to get that really savoury thing going on in the aubergine with the miso.”
Iyer adds the aubergine to her roasting tray, along with spring greens and slices of firm tofu. The ingredients are covered in a miso, sesame oil, ginger, and garlic marinade and then cooked for 45 minutes. After that, it’s a case of adding a simple chili and soy sauce dressing, then serving hot with rice and a spring onion garnish.
“I’ve cheated and bought packet rice today,” Iyer says, placing a bag in the microwave.
We eat on the balcony. Iyer, ever the food stylist, nudges an errant piece of tofu and arranges the rice carefully to one side of the dish before I take a photo. It looks perfect: plump aubergine nestled on a bed of crispy spring greens, which contrast with the flashes of red chili. It’s a picture worthy of any coffee table cookbook.
Of course, The Green Roasting Tin won’t be staying on my coffee table. It’ll be on the kitchen worktop, smeared with olive oil fingerprints and dog-eared from multiple readings, in no time.