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.