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