Best Butternut Destination: Cathy Walthers’ Black Bean Chili from her new cookbook, Soups & Sides

For a small island (only 18,000 year-round residents), Martha’s Vineyard has a lot of good cooks. There are bread bakers and pig-roasters, candy-makers and jelly-canners, shellfish shuckers and hops-brewers. Even a few, ahem, cookbook authors.  Not surprisingly, we (the cookbook folks) tend to support each other, as secretly I think we harbor the same suspicion—that we might just be crazy trying to make a living (or partial living!) as food writers.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that Cathy Walthers is not crazy. (I probably still am, though.) As a follow-up to her wildly popular cookbook, Raising the Salad Bar, (Lake Isle Press, 2007), Cathy (or Catherine as she is known in author-world) has just produced an amazing collection of fresh soups—each paired with a fun side dish—for her new book Soups + Sides (Lake Isle Press, 2010). Both books have the exceptional and vibrant photography of the Vineyard’s own Alison Shaw (see photo above and book cover photo, below), which makes perfect sense to me, as I think of Cathy’s cooking as vibrant, too—ultra-fresh and unfussy, full of flavor without unnecessary embellishments. Even in the extremely good company we have here on the Vineyard, I think Cathy is one of the best cooks around.

Lucky me, I got to taste three soups from Cathy’s book last week when Cathy and I did a joint book signing at Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich, Mass., as  part of a Cape Cod food festival called CLASH (Cape Land and Seas Harvest). The store asked us if we’d mind signing together, as we’re both local authors. Not only did we not mind, we loved the idea. Cathy went to my first signing on the Island at Bunch of Grapes bookstore when Fast, Fresh & Green came out in May, and I went to one of her first island signings at Pep Art Gallery in August when Soups + Sides came out.  We both know so well that fear—irrational as it might be—of “what if nobody shows up?” so it only makes sense to help fill the room when we can.

For the Titcomb’s event (which wasn’t in a room but on a terrace under a tent—a nice change-up), I made my Roasted Tomato, Basil, & Mozzarella Sandwiches (of course) and the store (which has access to a kitchen in the Titcomb family’s lovely 17th century home adjacent to the bookstore) made my Mahogany Mushrooms. Cathy brought her Black Bean and Butternut Squash Chili, and the store made her Corn Chowder with Spicy Red Pepper, and Kale and Vegetable Soup with Farro. All three of these soups were so fresh and delicious, but my favorite (probably because I’ve got butternut on the brain—more on that later in the week) was the clever and colorful chili (recipe below), so perfectly seasoned and comforting. (Cathy calls it her Halloween soup because of the bright orange and black colors. It’s the perfect warm-up for a cold October night).

A really cool thing about Cathy’s soups is that every one of them is paired with another simple recipe for an appropriate accompaniment. (There’s an easy cornbread to go with that butternut chili.) So for example, if you make (which I plan to) Rustic Fall Tomato Soup with Orzo and Mini Meatballs, you can make the Crostini with Goat cheese and Roasted Pears to go with it. Or you could put together Honey-Dijon Salmon Bites to go with Quick French Lentil Soup, or Garden Vegetable Quesadillas to go with Yucatan Chicken and Tomatillo Sopa. There are so many delicious sounding options that I can see Soups & Sides becoming, like Raising the Salad Bar, not just a well-used kitchen companion, but a popular gift book, too.  I just bought one for my Mom (but don’t tell her).

Black Bean and Butternut Squash Chili with Cilantro Pesto

Cathy mentions that the cilantro pesto is optional here—a great alternative is simply chopped fresh cilantro. Either way, this soup, inspired by a version Boston caterer Katie Le Lievre makes, is delicious.

2 large onions, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes with juices
4 cups ½-inch diced butternut squash (from about 1 medium squash)
2 to 3 cups water
2 cups cooked black beans
Kernels from 3 to 4 ears fresh corn (about 2 cups)
2 to 3 teaspoons kosher salt

Cilantro pesto (recipe follows) or chopped cilantro

In a large soup pot over medium heat, sauté the onions in oil until translucent, 10-15 minutes. Add garlic and sauté another 2 minutes.  Add spices and continue cooking, stirring to prevent burning, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes and break apart with a masher. Add squash and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, turn down heat to a simmer and cover. Let simmer until squash is tender, about 20 minutes.

Add the black beans, corn, and the additional water if needed, and simmer to let flavors blend, 5 minutes. Remove bay leaves. Season with salt.

Cilantro Pesto
1/3 cup walnut pieces, toasted
1 bunch cilantro washed and tough stems removed (about 1 cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup canola or olive oil, or a mix

To make the pesto, puree the walnuts, cilantro, garlic and oil in a food processor until smooth. Add salt to taste. Serve the soup with cilantro pesto on top or with plain chopped cilantro if you prefer.