“Soups and Sides” by Cathy Walthers

There’s been quite a bit of hype surrounding Catherine Walthers’s recently released cookbook “Soups + Sides,” and it’s not difficult to see why. Ms. Walthers made her cookbook debut with a bang with the release of “Raising the Salad Bar” in 2007, a fresh and easy guide to a food group the local author and private chef proved was entirely underrated. Despite boasting a seemingly limited field, “Raising the Salad Bar” appeals to all tastes of food lovers, even those wary of salads for their overpraised nutritional perks. With pictures by famed Vineyard photographer Alison Shaw, the cookbook is just as tantalizing to look at as it is to follow.

“Soups + Sides” does not disappoint. Like “Raising the Salad Bar,” the cookbook offers a thorough approach to a restricted, but in fact quite sundry food group. It provides a fresh look at basics, such as tomato soup with herbed cheese sandwiches, as well as more eclectic recipes like the roasted cherry soup with crushed sugared almonds and mascarpone, paired with summer fruit skewers.

The soups and sides recipes featured don’t have to be paired, though the option is always just a few pages away. What’s more, with an assortment of side dishes, appealing to a breadth of taste buds, the cookbook offers a novel theme for a dinner party, one that I explored last Saturday evening as part of a new favored means of nighttime entertainment.

Not particularly well suited to organizing, but passionate for food, I had no plan for the evening, except to attempt five dishes, chosen based on a brief survey and personal hunger pangs at 4 pm. Combined, these left me with: skewered shrimp, mac and cheese bites, crostini with roasted pears and goat cheese, honey Dijon salmon bites, and chickpea burgers with yogurt sauce. The original concept (to place cards in front of each dish and ask guests to apply appropriate adjectives) was scratched after participants consumed the food faster than I was able to provide writing utensils. Upon reflection, this was probably for the best as not much is typically said during ravenous consumption, and the few words that were uttered tended to be varieties of “tasty.”

Though I would love to attest the enthusiastic response of guests to personal culinary skills, my hasty (bordering chaotic) preparation suggests otherwise. It is more likely that the creative recipes spoke for themselves. The honey Dijon salmon bites were a group favorite, which thankfully were as easy to assemble as they were to make, and provided an affordable means to satisfy the summer fish cravings of more than 10 guests. The mac and cheese bites were another winner, though I recommend investing in bite-sized serving dishes at the risk of polishing off pie-pans full of the savory pasta dish.

Not every cook has to embrace Catherine Walthers’s unique approach to a cookbook as a lifestyle, though it seemed to work quite well. If nothing else, my experiment should encourage even the amateur chef to consider a new approach to any meal and the infinite possibilities of food pairing. Personally, I’m thankful to know I can rely on a scope of entertainment in future months when the weather turns and it’s time to start making soups.