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?

When Colours Run Riot

There was a phase in the 1970s when interior design ran riot. I remem­ber my grandpa announ­cing proudly that he’d dec­or­ated the walls of his small front room with four wildly dif­fer­ent wall­pa­pers and picked out the wood­work in egg-yolk yellow.

I thought of my grandpa as I walked around David Hockney’s new exhib­i­tion A Big­ger Pic­ture at the Royal Academy in Lon­don. The exhib­i­tion is vast and over­whelm­ing and throbs with wild col­ours and pat­terns. It’s gen­er­ous, showy and utterly inde­pend­ent in spirit and yet it’s metic­u­lous and some­how dogged too — qual­it­ies that pretty much sum up my grandpa.

Walk­ing through Oxford’s Uni­ver­sity Parks later that day, I felt some­how let down that the winter branches didn’t have the vibrancy of David Hockney’s trees.

But turn­ing 180 degrees so that the sun was shin­ing on the trunks, the col­ours jumped into life. I got a whole new per­spect­ive. And if that’s not a meta­phor for life, I don’t know what is.

Muted, restrained food is the last thing I wanted after the Hock­ney tidal wave. I craved the idea of eat­ing a riot of col­our. When in that mood and at this time of year, there’s really only one choice — full throttle, lip-staining, finger-smearing, red and yel­low beet­roots. I found a bag of just such a thing for half price at Whole­foods, along with a sil­ver foil hick­ory smoker from Fin­land for £2.29.

I have a dis­astrous record at home-smoking. The last time I tried we had to evac­u­ate the house. But I figured I’d be safe in the hands of the Finns. If you want a really strong smokey fla­vour, this bag will dis­ap­point you. But for a del­ic­ate hint of smoke, without the need for a full evac­u­ation plan, this bag works fine.

SMOKED RED AND GOLDEN BEETROOT WITH GOAT’S CURD AND SMOKED GARLIC

Serves 4

  • 2 red and 2 golden beetroot
  • 4 small red onions
  • Salad leaves
  • Goat’s curd
  • 1 head garlic
  • 2 table­spoons bal­samic vinegar
  • Bunch thyme
  • 2 table­spoons olive oil
  • Black­berry vin­egar — I bought mine from Womers­ley Foods
  • 1 dis­pos­able foil smoker — bought from Whole­foods for £2.29

Wash the beet­root, but don’t bother to peel them. Slice into rounds about 1.5 to 2 cm thick. Peel the onions but leave whole. Toss the beet­root, onions, whole head of gar­lic and thyme in the olive oil and bal­samic vin­egar, sea­son and place in a single layer inside the foil smoker. Seal the foil and place in a pre-heated oven at 250 degrees C. After 15 minutes turn the heat down to 190 degrees C. Cook for a fur­ther 45 minutes. Remove the pack­age from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes before cut­ting open the foil. Peel the beet­root and slice into thin­nish circles.

Make a salad dress­ing from a little olive oil, black­berry vin­egar and season­ing and dress the salad leaves. Pile the beet­root, onions and scoops of goat’s curd over the leaves and trickle over a little of the bal­samic and olive oil from the smoker. After its hour of bak­ing, the gar­lic will be rich, sweet and unc­tu­ous — per­fect when spread on a little sour­dough bread.

I ate my riot­ous salad and bread with beet­root soup that I made by bak­ing beet­roots and apples for an hour and blend­ing with veget­able stock and a little grated fresh horseradish.

apple on a plate

My grandpa was wild with his col­our schemes but excep­tion­ally timid in his tastes. He would have hated this recipe. But he would have loved the ideas that lie behind it, and that’s good enough for me.

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.

Spinach and Sorrel Soup, The Sonnet

Soup is one of the best foods ever inven­ted, so why are most of the ref­er­ences to it in lit­er­at­ure unashamedly dis­mal? Soup is usu­ally a meta­phor for hard times, dour land­ladies and dubi­ous chefs. The 20th cen­tury Amer­ican author Mar­garet Hal­sey cap­tured the ‘sad soup genre’ per­fectly when she said that the broth she was served ‘tasted as if it had been drained out of the umbrella stand.’

So here comes the fight­back. This spin­ach and sor­rel soup should have a son­net writ­ten about it. Or a novel in which the prot­ag­on­ist is restored to good health and good for­tune after just one spoon­ful. It’s the rich, deep, full-throttle green of a vin­tage racing car and gives instant vigour and zip to any­one who so much as looks at it. 

Sor­rel is a beau­ti­ful herb, espe­cially this red-veined vari­ety, but it’s often hard to find in the shops. I have a friend who keeps an allot­ment purely so she can main­tain her sor­rel sup­plies. But this week I spot­ted an entire tray of pot­ted sor­rel in my local shop, with reduced price stick­ers attached. So I res­cued the lot.

You may know by now that I love pic­nics and long walks. My mum used to put a flask of soup in one pocket of her coat and hot cheese, tomato and mus­tard rolls in the other and we would set off. Spin­ach and sor­rel soup would be the per­fect walk­ing companion. Make it, eat it and start writ­ing in rhym­ing couplets.

Spin­ach and Sor­rel Soup

Serves 4

1 floury potato, chopped into smallish, even-sized chunks

I medium onion, cut into sim­ilar sized pieces

1 clove gar­lic, sliced

1 knob butter

500ml veget­able stock

400g fresh spin­ach, coarsely chopped

40 sor­rel leaves — the sor­rel gives a del­ic­ate lemon back­ground fla­vour, but if you can’t find sor­rel, add an extra 50g or so of spin­ach and add a little grated lemon zest

Hand­ful of micro herbs such as cori­ander and red amar­anth to sprinkle over at the end — or just some chopped chives

Spoon­ful of cream (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the but­ter in a pan and cook the onion, gar­lic and potato together gently for five minutes or so, without col­our­ing them. Add the veget­able stock and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to a gentle sim­mer for around 15 minutes until the potato is soft. 

Add 200g of the spin­ach and all the sor­rel leaves, sea­son with salt and pep­per and cook for a fur­ther five minutes. The sor­rel leaves give a del­ic­ate lemon back­ground fla­vour, but if you can’t find sor­rel, just add an extra 50g or so of spin­ach instead and a little grated lemon zest. Take the pan off the heat and add the remain­ing uncooked spin­ach. Blend imme­di­ately and adjust the season­ing. Serve with a drizzle of cream, if using, and a sprink­ling of herbs. Adding half the spin­ach at the end keeps the mag­ni­fi­cent deep emer­ald col­our of the soup. 

DIY Miso Soup

I’ve argued for years that if children’s books can have illus­tra­tions, why shouldn’t nov­els for adults? When Jonathan Safran Foer pub­lished Extremely Loud and Incred­ibly Close I felt vin­dic­ated. It has draw­ings, typo­graph­ical exper­i­ments, pho­to­graphs, a flip-book …and it’s magnificent.

Safran Foer has just out­done him­self. I’ve spent the even­ing read­ing his latest work Tree of Codes. It’s a start­ling and phys­ic­ally beau­ti­ful book, a rework­ing of Bruno Schulz’ 20th Cen­tury story The Street of Cro­codiles. Even the new title is a vari­ation on the ori­ginal — slice ten let­ters from The Street of Cro­codiles and Tree of Codes is the result.

The die-cut book is a work of del­ic­acy and ingenu­ity. Turn a page too briskly and it will tear. Words glim­mer through the gaps so that each read­ing of the novel pro­duces a new story.

It’s a novel that expects effort, but the reward is that it becomes one’s own. As I explored Tree of Codes this even­ing, I ate a bowl of DIY miso soup, some­thing I’ve been eat­ing most days since Janu­ary 1st. DIY soup demands that the eater works at it, cre­ates it at the table. And just like Tree of Codes, it’s dif­fer­ent every time.

DIY MISO SOUP

Serves 2

20g dried shi­take mushrooms

2 table­spoons miso paste

3 table­spoons soy sauce

3 table­spoon fish sauce

1 litre water

2 cm chunk of fresh ginger

2 cm length of lemongrass

2 nests of fine egg noodles

Half fresh red chilli

Hand­ful cori­ander leaves

2 spring onions or scallions

2 cloves finely chopped garlic

200g raw King prawns

Pour a little boil­ing water over the mush­rooms and put to one side. Peel the ginger and grate it into a sauce­pan large enough to hold 1 litre of water. Chop the lem­on­grass roughly and add to the pan, along with the miso paste, and the soy and fish sauces. Bring to a gentle sim­mer, take off the heat and allow the fla­vours to develop.

Finely chop the chil­lis and spring onions and put into two serving bowls. Put the washed cori­ander leaves in a third bowl. Rinse the softened mush­rooms and add to a fourth bowl. Line these up on the table with a serving spoon in each. Place the uncooked noodle nests into two soup bowls, bring the soup back up to a sim­mer. Strain it and divide equally between the two bowls, pour­ing it over the noodles to soften them while you cook the prawns. Saute the prawns in a little olive oil with the finely chopped gar­lic. When the prawns are pink, tip them into a fifth serving bowl and take to the table. By this time the soup liquor will have cooked the noodles. Just add gen­er­ous help­ings of all or some of the extra ingredi­ents to your soup and start to eat.

I made DIY soup for twelve people yes­ter­day and the choos­ing and the eat­ing made a simple meal into an event. It would have been even bet­ter if all twelve of us had had our own copy of Tree of Codes to read aloud from as we ate.

Celeriac Soup with Apple and Chestnut

Read­ing Paul Auster’s novel The Brook­lyn Fol­lies, I col­lided with a dis­turb­ing idea. Accord­ing to Auster’s thwarted char­ac­ter Tom, we’ve entered a new era, an era of the ‘post-past age.’ Tom elab­or­ates that the ‘post-past’ means ‘The now. And also the later. But no more dwell­ing on the then.’

Could that be true? Are we so dis­lo­cated from any­thing that’s gone before that we have no choice but to stare fix­edly ahead and wait for what’s com­ing? What kind of cynic do you think I am? Of course I don’t agree with that notion and neither, I sus­pect, do you. At this time of year you need only go to a child’s nativ­ity play, or flick through an old cook­ery book to find the recipe that your mother swore by for Christ­mas tur­key, or attend a Remem­brance Day ser­vice, or go to a Thanks­giv­ing party, as I did last week. And then you will know that the post-past is a fic­tion dreamed up by people who favour the smart remark above the truth.

And just in case you need a little more per­suad­ing, here is my recipe for celeriac and chest­nut soup, a divinely fra­grant con­coc­tion that I first ate when I was a child. As far as I’m con­cerned, the post-past is dead. Long live the pre-present.…

Celeriac Soup With Apple and Chestnut

Serves 6

2 table­spoons extra vir­gin olive oil

1 floury potato

1 medium onion

1 gar­lic clove

I whole celeriac, peeled and cut into chunks

I litre veget­able stock

100 ml double cream

100 ml full cream milk

100 g vacuum packed cooked chestnuts

2 Granny Smith apples

Truffle oil

Cut the potato, onion, 1 apple and celeriac into chunks and slice the gar­lic. Soften the onion gently in the olive oil for five minutes, and then add the potato, gar­lic, apple and celeriac. Don’t allow the veget­ables to brown. Sea­son and con­tinue to cook gently for another five minutes and then add the hot veget­able stock and sim­mer for twenty minutes. Puree with a stick blender before stir­ring in the cream and milk. Reheat the soup, but don’t let it boil. Adjust the season­ing. Break the chest­nuts into smallish pieces and saute briefly in a little olive oil. Cut the second apple into the finest juli­enne — (don’t peel the apple — the flash of green at one end is good). Serve the soup with a scat­ter­ing of chest­nuts, a sprink­ling of apple and a cir­cu­lar drizzle of truffle oil. Eat your soup like the Roman god Janus, facing back­wards and for­wards at the same time. And let’s have no more talk of the post-past.

Poems, Roses and Butterbean Soup

I was entranced to hear that the Brit­ish poet Ian McMil­lan used to tuck a poem into his children’s packed lunches before school each morn­ing. I’d pay good money for someone to do that for me, although I did once have a boy­friend who used to put a rose in my hand­bag every time I left the house. That was, I sup­pose, a little bit of poetry in itself.

Today the frost has finally come and I have a yearn­ing to make but­ter­bean and pea­nut soup, a recipe my mother used to make. She would stand at the Aga stir­ring the soup with the bread knife because she thought it was the only utensil any­one ever really needs. It cuts, it stirs and it spreads she would say, and that pretty much cov­ers most things — unless you have a pen­chant for piped pota­toes which I really don’t.

I’m going to eat my soup read­ing Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shel­ley. And I might even tuck a copy of it into my own hand­bag afterwards.

But­ter­bean and Pea­nut Soup

Serves 6

500g dried butterbeans

1 litre veget­able stock

6 table­spoons crunchy pea­nut butter

Salt and pepper

Chives

Soak the but­ter­beans in 1.5 litres of cold water for 24 hours. Drain and rinse well and then put them in a pan with another 1.5 litres of cold water. Bring to the boil and let the beans bubble briskly for 10 minutes, skim­ming the water as you go. After ten minutes reduce the heat and cook gently for another ten minutes. Tip away the water and replace with the veget­able stock — Marigold Bouil­lon powder is good for this — and bring to a gentle boil. Add the pea­nut but­ter and con­tinue to cook gently for an hour, adding more water if you need to.

Adjust the season­ing at the end and serve with a scat­ter­ing of chopped chives. This, I have to con­fess, is as much an aes­thetic as a taste thing. Beige soup needs a little col­our in its life, just like we do.