THE SIX COOKBOOKS under review are serious, handsome, clearly written, beautifully edited and well annotated. They are written by professionals of great reputation and standing. In addition to collections of recipes, these are solid expositions on food, equipment and the process of cooking, which can save a lot of grief.
The four best books are, oddly enough, sequels and as good as or better than their predecessors. The food they present is sophisticated -- sometimes quite complicated, often simple, almost always imaginative and elegant. The dishes, as knockout color pictures show, are also beautiful: some look very Japanese; some are glitzy enough for a hotel banquet table except that these recipes don't taste like plastic; none resembles the candlestick salads and mashed-potato bunny rabbits of the magazines found at supermarket checkout counters.
Despite their similarities, these four books are very different in approach. I already consider them to be indispensable, and I suspect that anyone who shares my madness for cooking would get hooked on them very quickly.
I was never able to cook anything from Michel Guerard's first book, Cuisine Minceur. I couldn't face the refrigerator full of farmer's cheese and the two weeks of dedication he said were necessary to master this whole new approach to cooking. So I was skeptical of Guerard -- of his reputation as the most innovative chef in France and as a creator of the nouvelle cuisine. I did not expect much of the new Michel Guerard's Guisine Gourmande (Morrow, $14.95). First I tried the tiny corn crepes -- easy and wonderful. Then I used his wicked pate sablee sucree for his hot apple tarts -- butter-nutty yummy. Then I did his grenadine and onion "jam" -- worth the search for sherry vinegar and divine with the pate I then had to make to go with it. Then it was the scallops with endive sauce -- wildly exciting, which, with this book, Guerard is. My Conversion is complete.
Simone Beck's New Menus From Simca's Cuisine (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.95) is a witty, delicious extension of her Simca's Cuisine, a book I turn to for its perfect menus and heavenly food. In New Menus Simca, also coauthor of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, shows what happens when a brilliant and influential cook discovers America. She now uses such un-French ingredients as Dungeness crabs, avocados, macadamia nuts, maple syrup and bourbon, and yet nobody's food is more French. Bourbon she likes for mint juleps (most refreshing in a Mediterranean summer), with lemon for a fantastic duck and in combination with maple syrup to poach pears (which are then encased in pastry for the prettiest dessert). Simca can get away with anything because she makes anything work.
The new Lenotre's Ice Cream and Candies (barron's, $18.95), which complements the marvelous Lenotre's Desserts and Pastries, offers unheard of opportunities for depravity, especially because the ice cream book is easier to use than Lenotre's first volume: Fewer cross-referenced recipes, less complicated recipes. Lenotre further simplifies by specifying what the cook is getting into: how long it takes to prepare, cook, cool and freeze a recipe and what can be stored, how and for how long. Lenotre's sherbets and ice cream, the candies and jellied fruits, the glazed chestnuts and the chocolates are ruinously indulgent and gorgeous.
Even the most adroit cooks can learn something about technique, and the person who can teach them is Jacques Pepin. His new La Methode (Quardrangle/New York Times, $25), as solid and reassuring as his La Technique, uses lucid explanations, step-by-step black-and-white photographs and even more recipes than the first volume to illustrate 141 techniques (from simple to complicated) essential to the accomplished cook. Among other wonders, Pepin tells how to sharpen a knife, bone a bird, stuff a pig's foot, knead a loaf, glaze a strawberry and make a shellfish sausage, slice a ham, put it back together and envelope it in a crust. He does it like the born teacher he is: breaking down the process and making it clear that even the most complicated dish evolves one step at a time.
Marion Cunningham's superb remake of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (Knopf, $12.95) and Helen Witty and Elizabeth Schneider Colchie's comforting, sensible and intelligent Better Than Store Bought (Harper & Row, $12.95) are very good books. They make me want to use them and they give me confidence that the food they tell me to cook will be good.
Fannie Farmer, still basic but no longer the Boston Cooking School book, has become an all-American cookery book, one that we needed, without the cans of mushroom and celery soup, and with straight talk. It is diverse, derivative, healthy, cozy and comforting.
Better Than Store Bought tells you how to prepare chemical and additive-free foods that taste 10 times better at half the price without killing yourself with work. This book leaves the homemade cookie and cocoa mixes to others and generously gives recipes for several kinds of sausage, green peppercorn mustard, fig newtons and pastrami -- the kinds of things you really want to make. It also has a fabulous recipe for making sauerkraut in a jar -- no clutter, no smell, no having to remember to wash out the cheesecloth, and no soggy sour sauerkraut. CAPTION: Illustration 1, from "A Food Lover's Companion," selected and edited by Evan Jones; Illustration 2, no caption (Harper & Row, $13.95) By Lauren Jarret