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.

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