The Art of Fugue Soup

If osso bucco is a complex symphony, baked alaska is a frivolous operetta and a jam doughnut is a song by Cliff Richard, then a bowl of fine soup is a fugue. The best soup unites ingredients that act beautifully together; separate but always enhancing and echoing each other, just like a fugue.

As I write this, I’m listening to Bach’s The Art of Fugue. It’s a piece of music I can listen to endlessly and often do. My fugue soup is the perfect accompaniment – and very satisfyingly it’s not just fugal but frugal.

The only essential thing about this soup is that it should be cooked so lightly as to keep its bright green hue – khaki vegetable soup is more requiem than fugue. But you can vary the ingredients depending on the season. That way your soup will be both different and the same, as is a fugue.

 FUGUE SOUP

Serves 4

  • 2 litres vegetable stock
  • 200g podded or frozen petit pois
  • 200g broad beans
  • 2 medium courgettes, cut into small dice
  • 200g fine asparagus
  • 1 clove garlic, finely sliced
  •  4 spring onions or scallions, chopped finely
  • Handful herb flowers such as thyme or chive
  • Handful chopped chives
  • Handful torn basil
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Seasoning

Bring the stock to a simmer. Add the broad beans and blanch for 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and put aside in a bowl. When cool, peel off the leathery skins and discard. With the stock still at a simmer, add the asparagus and one of the diced courgettes to the liquid and blanch for 3 minutes. Remove these vegetables too and put aside. Add the peas. Blanch for no more than 1 minute if they’re frozen and 3 minutes if they’re fresh, before removing and once again putting to one side. Reserve the stock.

In a small frying pan, gently heat the chopped spring onions and garlic in the olive oil. Allow to soften but not to brown. Add the second diced courgette to the frying pan and allow it to soften too. Tip the onions, garlic and courgette mixture into the stock and cook gently for about 3 or 4 minutes. Add half the blanched peas and heat for a further minute. The courgettes and peas should still be bright green – it’s crucial not to overcook the soup and thereby allow shades of combat trousers to enter the spectrum. Process with a stick blender in the pan until smooth. Just before serving, tip in all the remaining blanched vegetables that you put to one side at the start. Season to taste. Ladle the soup into bowls in which you have placed some shredded fresh basil leaves. Top with a handful of chopped chives and some herb flowers.

Eat while listening to my favourite performance of The Art of Fugue, by the Russian pianist Rustem Hayroudinoff. It’s the version chosen by novelist Vikram Seth for the CD that he compiled to accompany his exquisite musical novel An Equal Music. So in true fugal counterpoint, you can eat fugue soup, while listening to the The Art of Fugue and reading about The Art of Fugue at the same time. What could possibly be more fugal?

A feast for Karen Blixen

There are many reasons to admire the writer Karen Blixen and Babette’s Feast is one of them. Her story of a french woman who creates a magnificent dinner on which she lavishes her entire fortune is one I’ve always loved. The two elderly sisters for whom Babette cooks are aghast to learn that she has spent everything she has and will be impoverished for the rest of her life. Her sanguine reply is that ‘an artist is never poor’.

Early this morning I found another reason to admire Karen Blixen. Reading a slightly whimsical but magical book called Writers’ Houses, I discovered that ‘Karen liked to combine old roses with cabbage leaves, or blossoms from her garden with wild herbs gathered in the forest behind the house. On days when she received guests, she rose at five in the morning to go out and gather flowers while they were still moist with dew.’

What? I’m all for making my dinner guests feel cherished, but get up at five in the morning so the flowers for the table still have dew on them? I’m sorry, but you have to be joking. I admit though that I was so impressed by her exacting aesthetic sense that I nipped outside and gathered some rosemary flowers for lunch. It was already 7.30 in the morning, which is practically mid afternoon by Karen Blixen’s standards – but look, they have dew!

Herb flowers are the finest part of the plant. They hold within them a whisper of the flavour of the stems from which they came; a delicate, fragrant memory of their more upfront, bossy, herby relatives. Karen Blixen liked to include herb flowers in bouquets. I like to include mine on my plate.

Pea, Rosemary Flower and Crab Risotto

Serves 4

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 knobs butter

1 large onion

2 garlic cloves

350g risotto rice

1 large glass dry white wine

1 litre vegetable stock

200g frozen peas

100g fresh white crab meat

Handful rosemary flowers – chive flowers are good too

Melt one knob of butter with the olive oil over a medium heat and gently cook the chopped onion and garlic until soft but not brown. Add the rice and a little salt and stir until coated and glossy. Pour in the white wine and stir until fully absorbed by the rice. Meanwhile heat the stock in a neighbouring pan and once the wine has been absorbed, ladle a little hot stock onto the rice and stir. As soon as the stock is absorbed, add more, stirring all the while. If you run out of stock, add a little boiling water. Once the rice is cooked and creamy which will take about twenty minutes, add the uncooked and still frozen peas and stir them through for just a couple of minutes. Don’t overcook them because the last thing you want are khaki-coloured peas. Stir in the second knob of butter, check the seasoning, put the lid on the pan and take off the heat. Divide between four warm bowls, sprinkle with rosemary flowers and top with the white crab meat.

Pea, rosemary flower and crab risotto is, to my mind, the perfect lunch. I like to think the creator of Babette’s Feast would have enjoyed it too, dew or no dew.