Still Life with Soup

Few things give me as much pleas­ure as a still life paint­ing. Gior­gio Morandi, Alice Mum­ford, Ben Nich­olson, Edou­ard Vuil­lard all do some­thing magical to a jug of milk, a white vase and a pot of jam and turn the mundane and every­day into some­thing mag­ni­fi­cent. I even like the term itself — ‘still life’ — cap­tur­ing as it does the glor­ies of sit­ting peace­fully and simply look­ing at some­thing for a minute, a day, a month, forever. Poor old Italy and France have been cheated out of the true glor­ies of the still life — their trans­la­tions for the term are ‘la natura morta’ and ‘la nature morte’. ‘Dead nature’ is a ter­rible defin­i­tion and misses the point completely.

Still life, as well as being a glor­i­ous art-form, is the per­fect syn­onym for soup. Eat a bowl of home-made soup and life will stand still for just a moment, as you savour the glor­ies in the bowl. I’ve writ­ten before about the joys of soup, and few can beat this one. Its ingredi­ents are like the com­pon­ents of a Vuil­lard paint­ing — until they’re com­bined you have no idea how per­fectly they go together. And don’t be put off by the length of this soup’s name. It’s quick, easy and effort­less, unlike for example Osso Bucco which has a short snappy title but takes forever to make.

BUTTERNUT SQUASH, MAPLE AND GINGER STILL LIFE, WITH SPICED BUTTER AND PUMPKIN SEEDS

Serves 4

For the soup

  • 1 but­ter­nut squash
  • 2 table­spoons maple syrup
  • Season­ing
  • 2 white onions
  • 1 scant dessert spoon fen­nel seeds
  • Olive oil and knob of butter
  • 1 piece fresh ginger, about 3 cm in length
  • 1 litre good veget­able stock

Wash the but­ter­nut squash — you’re going to be using the skin. Chop it into medium-sized pieces, de-seed it but don’t bother to peel it. Put the pieces in a bak­ing tray and sprinkle with the maple syrup and a little salt and pep­per. Dot with small pieces of but­ter and a small quant­ity of olive oil. Bake in a mod­er­ate oven at about 170 degrees C for about 40 minutes until the squash is soft and slightly car­a­mel­ised. While the squash is cook­ing, chop the onions finely and put in a pan with the fen­nel seeds, some salt and pep­per, a little olive oil and a knob of but­ter. Cook at the gentlest pos­sible heat for about 30 minutes, stir­ring every now and again. The onions should be a rich, golden brown, but not burnt. About five minutes before the squash is ready, finely grate the peeled ginger into the onions.

Tip the squash, skin and all, into the onions, add the litre of veget­able stock, bring to a sim­mer and liquid­ise with a stick blender.

For the spiced butter

  • 20g unsalted butter
  • Good pinch smoked sea salt (ordin­ary sea salt is fine too)
  • Half tea­spoon chilli powder
  • Half tea­spoon smoked paprika
  • A few fresh cori­ander leaves

Make sure the but­ter is soft enough to mix in with the other ingredi­ents. Snip the cori­ander finely with scis­sors and com­bine everything well. Put the but­ter in a piece of cling film, roll it into a small saus­age about 2.5 cms in dia­meter and put in the fridge for 15 minutes or so to harden. Serve the soup with a disc of spiced but­ter, a sprink­ling of pump­kin seeds and a sprig of mint or cori­ander. Sit, eat and ‘have a minute’ as my Granny used to say. It’s still life in a bowl.

Cups, Spoons, Weights and Measures

China measuring cups with a silver spoon

It’s the sea­son to take stock, count up, meas­ure out, pledge, prom­ise and decide. I’ve made res­ol­u­tions for the first time in five years and on my list is ‘read more poetry’. Expert resolution-makers say that simply vow­ing to do more of some­thing is cheat­ing. But I’m happy with my slightly vague ‘more’ and who­ever said that poetry con­sump­tion should be cal­ib­rated, anyway?

Stems of red berries in a white jug

Stems of fresh red ber­ries on my kit­chen table are throw­ing a new shadow on the wall, but the sil­hou­ettes of the Christ­mas candles are still there too. It’s that time of year when old passes to new and, for once, we actu­ally take note.

Three spoons on a cloth

With all the fren­zied men­tal meas­ur­ing that’s been going on, I wasn’t in the mood to do too much weigh­ing and meas­ur­ing in the kit­chen. For times like this, I have the per­fect recipe.…. Chocol­ate and Crunchy Pea­nut Ice-Cream. It’s an adapt­a­tion of a David Lebovitz recipe, from his inspir­ing but depend­able book The Per­fect Scoop. In fact, while I’m on the sub­ject of New Year’s res­ol­u­tions, to aim to be both inspir­ing and depend­able sounds ideal. I may add that to my list.

Chocolate ice-cream with almond brittle

This is the kind of recipe that you can make while read­ing a book of poetry at the same time, so easy and mem­or­able is it. A cup of this, a half cup of that and you’re almost there.

CHOCOLATE AND CRUNCHY PEANUT ICE-CREAM

  • 1 cup double cream
  • 1 cup semi-skimmed milk (you can use full cream if you prefer. I’ve even tried it with skimmed. All three grades of milk work per­fectly fine)
  • Quarter cup pure cocoa powder
  • Half cup caster sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • Half a jar of crunchy pea­nut but­ter — this equates to roughly 175g, but a little more or a little less really doesn’t matter

Tip all the ingredi­ents, apart from the pea­nut but­ter, into a pan. Over a mod­er­ate heat, stir with a whisk and bring briefly to a hearty sim­mer. It will bubble up in the pan, at which point take off the heat. Mix in the pea­nut but­ter, allow to cool and churn in an ice-cream maker. It’s as easy as that. My chil­dren have asked if I will make a New Year’s res­ol­u­tion to cre­ate it even more reg­u­larly than I already do.

If in fanci­ful mood, make some almond brittle to poke in the top. Toast the almonds in a small non-stick fry­ing pan. Put to one side. Pour half a cup of caster sugar into the same pan. Without stir­ring, heat the sugar and swirl it around the pan until it melts to a light car­a­mel liquid. It burns eas­ily and also gets fero­ciously hot, so be care­ful. Stir in the nuts and quickly spread out onto a piece of bak­ing parch­ment with a pal­ate knife. It will set almost imme­di­ately. Snap off a piece to suit your appet­ite and your conscience.

Almond and toffee brittle

To my mind, the true meas­ure of a good piece of brittle is that it should be trans­lu­cent enough to read a poem through it. That way, if your New Year’s res­ol­u­tion is the same as mine, you can have your cake while read­ing it at the same time. And who could argue with that?

Scoop of chocolate ice-cream with shard of almond brittle