THE BEST of this season's cookbooks was written eight years ago, reissued in trade paperback this year.

It is still a joy to read James Beard's "American Cookery ," (Little Brown, $9.95). It couldn't be more timely. With the increasing interest in the search for a definition of American cooking, the book offers a sense of where it has come from and where it is going.

Whether or not you like to cook, if you like to read about food, you will want to hear what the dean of American cooking has to say about it . . . in no uncertain terms:

Baked Alaska -- "This has become a signature for elaborate dining in this country and is a dessert that causes ohs and ahs wherever it is presented. I think it is greatly overrated, but it is part of American life."

Miss Farmer's Recipe for Rhode Island Clam Chowder -- "This is the closest bridge I have found to that rather horrendous soup called Manhattan clam chowder. It is a sensible recipe and takes away the curse of the other, which resembles a vegetable soup that accidentally had some clams dumped into it."

But don't get the wrong idea. Beard revels in American food. "Whereas eight years ago people sneered at the notion that there was such a thing as an American cuisine, today more and more people are forced to agree that we have developed one of the more interesting cuisines of the world."

Two books, which reflect the current interest of both serious cooks and casual ones who follow each fad, are about Japanese cooking. One, "Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art ," by Shizuo Tsuji (Kodansha International, $14.95) is as thorough a treatment of the art as any American is likely to see. For some it may be more than they want to know. In which case they can buy "At Home with Japanese Cooking " by Elizabeth Andoh ($15, Knopf).

If it is possible to teach someone how to cook in a book, Tsuji's is equal to the task. But the book does much more: It explains the philosophy behind Japanese cuisine, which is as exotic to the American palate today as Chinese was 60 years ago. Perhaps more so because, as the author notes in his preface, "Some Japanese dishes may at first seem flat and insipid to many Westerners. To those accustomed to rich, filling sauces and stocks using butter, flour and meat juices, many of our foods may seem thin and lacking in substance."

But Japanese cooking, as Tsuji notes, "like Japanese painting and poetry . . . is simply the result of an acute awareness of the seasons."

And for the many Americans who have turned to simple eating, savoring the freshness of foods, the simplicity of preparation, Japanese cooking is worth exploring. It's as if Japanese food were environmentally aware.

In order to understand how to cook the food, the author devotes well over 50 pages to a discussion of ingredients. Utensils, with a separate section on knives, take up only 16 pages because, as Tsuji notes: "If your kitchen is well equipped for Western cooking, you can cook Japanese food."

The clear line drawings of the techniques necessary for the cooking are important, because how the food looks is as important as how it tastes.

Tsuji is the head of a large school for professional chefs in Osaka, but he assumes that the readers of his cookbook know nothing about Japanese cooking. The first part of the book is devoted to the techniques of Japanese cooking. The second contains recipes which build on the techniques of the first part. The appendix contains an extensive list of stores that carry the ingredients necessary to cook with this book.

I have one quarrel with Tsuji. Never once does he mention the use of monosodium glutamate in his receipes, so one must assume he doesn't use it, either because he considers it unnecessary or because he doesn't approve of it. Yet he recommends, as an alternative to homemade dashi , the instant dashi , which I have never found without monosodium glutamate in the market. It's a minor quibble, and if I were going to do Japanese cooking the way some people did French cooking after Julia Child appeared, this is the book I would buy.

For those who would like to try Japanese dishes, but only want to know what's necessary in order to make these dishes, Andoh's book "At Home With Japanese Cooking," may be more to their liking. Written by an American, it approaches Japanese food more as an American would.

If your heart still lies with French cooking, and you have advanced beyond a general notion o fnouvelle cuisine, "Roger Verge's Cuisine of the South of France " (Morrow, $14.95) will afford you long, pleasurable hours in the kitchen. Three-star chef Verge has taken nouvelle cuisine the next step: He has applied it to the cooking of one specific region, Provence.

In case your palate is not titillated by the receipes themselves, there are a few glorious color photos to show you how they should look.

The dishes are not necessarily complex; they do not make constant reference to other recipes on other pages; they are well annotated for American kitchens.

Verge, as it turns out, is also a no-nonsense cook. He writes about the "foolishnesses and superstitions" concerning mayonnaise: "For a successful mayonnaise, one must only use a wooden spoon . . . One must not breathe anywhere near the bowl (this can't be easy!) . . . One must never change the direction of stirring . . .

"Is this sauce so capricious? Nonsense! Nothing is more simple to make than mayonnaise if you bear in mind my little bits of advice."

On the subject of buerre blanc , which is translated as foamy white butter sauce, Verge says "probably one hundred recipes exist, all culminating in practically the same result. Each of these recipes boasts that it is the true one. It is not so much the most authentic that I offer (it risks being proclaimed a heresy by many). Nonetheless, it has the advantage of being simple, and, for my part, I find it very good. Judge for yourself." o

You will, of course, have the best results with most of Verge's recipes in the summer when the wonderful vegetables and herbs basic to the cooking of Provence are more readily available here: garden-ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, good cucumbers. The cooking of Provence is often referred to as the cooking of the sun, and that's how you feel when you cook from this book.

It says something about our interest in fish that several good books on the creatures of the deep (and not so deep) were published this year. One, reviewed earlier, was "Cooking Fish and Shellfish ," by Ruth Spear (Doubleday, $16.95). Sheryl and Mel London have produced another, "The Fish-Lovers Cookbook ," (Rodale, $14.95 until Jan. 1, $16.95 thereafter). There is much in it to recommend it; there are a few things to which I take exception.

The book is likely to appeal to those who have to prepare someone's catch as well as those who have to face up to buying fish in the store. It also has material that may be of interest to fish-lovers in general, but is of no practical use for fish cookers.

There are plenty of useful tips, however, and the London's discussion of how to handle lean versus fatty fish should be helpful to those who can't figure out why it's fine to poach a flounder but not to poach a blue. One tip in there is so useful it may offset my quarrel with the Ondons. They note that if you want a milder taste when you cook a fatty fish, just use vinegar or citrus juices.

However, they have decided to leave out all bivalves from the book because ". . . they are implicated in outbreaks of hepatitis and paralytic shellfish poisoning."

No one can quarrel with their concern. But if they are worried about bivalves why aren't they worried about mercury in swordfish? Levels in it have not decreased, according to FDA. The only thing that has happened in the last two years is that in a Florida court case where FDA seized some swordfish with levels of mercury above the limit of 1/2 part per million (ppm) the judge changed the permissible level of mercury from 1/2 ppm to 1 ppm. He based his decision on the fact that Americans don't eat much fish in general, swordfish in particular. But, as Ruth Spear notes in her fish book, if you worry about things like that you will want to avoid swordfish.

None of this, however, detracts from the interesting recipes you will find in the book. Now if fish would only come down in price.

"The Four Seasons" by Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi (Simon & Schuster, $29.95) is an old-fashioned restaurant cookbook that has one important thing going for it. It is old-fashioned because it is based on the recipes served at the world-famous New York restaurant, recipes which require lots of ingredients only the most serious cooks are likely to have at home. It is modern because the recipes have been tested, something lots of restaurant cookbooks have not done in the past. That means that the recipes are likely to work, and of the four we tested three did perfectly. In the unusual walnut tart the filling overflowed.

For New Yorkers who care about such things, and enough of them do, the cachet of the Four Seasons has as much to do with the restaurant itself as with the food, though the food can be quite good. Who eats there and where they sit is just as important to the chic crowd as it once was at Grenouille when Jackie Onassis lunched there. The importance of those people to the restaurant is carried through in the book, which is generously sprinkled with the autographs of the rich and/or famous. They even included the location of the autographs in the index.

If you've always wanted to cook the way they do at the Four Seasons, now you can . . . for a price.

Jean Hewitt, food editor of Family Circle, always has her pulse on the tastes of those who don't know sushi from sashimi; in other words, on the majority of American cooks. Her latest book is just additional proof. "Jean Hewitt's International Meatless Cookbook" (Times Books, $12.95) comes at a time when a new kind of "vegetarian" has emerged: the vegetarian who eats fish and chicken. Of course these are not vegetarians, but they often describe themselves that way. The book is right on the money for them as the subtitle explains: "Over 300 Delicious Recipes, Including Many for Fish and Chicken."

By far the greatest number of recipes are for vegetable main and side dishes, but there are two chapters devoted to fish and chicken main dishes. In general the recipes call for ingredients available in most supermarkets, and you can be assured that all of them work.

Although Hewitt knows her audience, she is always willing to give them a nudge in the direction of experimentation with new foods.So along with recipes for the familiar chicken cacciatore and scalloped oysters, there's one for the aforementioned sushi.

At the other extreme are the books of Elizabeth David, an Englishwoman who opened up new worlds of cooking to her countrywomen and Americans when she wrote in the '50s. As James Beard notes in his foreword to an anthology of three of her early books: "Elizabeth David shook her readers out of their culinary rut, challenging them to explore a different world of food and seek out and use unfamiliar ingredients and flavorings. She was a leader, ahead of her time . . ."

The anthology include "Mediterranean Food," French Country Cooking" and "Summer Cooking." Published by Knopf for $15.95, it is more a book to read than to cook from. And the recipes are definitely for those who know something about cooking. David does not write recipes in the detailed style we have come to expect. And she writes them in prose rather than listing the ingredients separately, followed by directions.

People may talk about wanting light desserts, but at the Thanksgiving dinner I attended last week there were five deserts: lemon mousse, chocolate chip bars, pumpkin chiffon pie, apple pie and chocolate swirl cheese cake. Guess which one went first?

The cheese cake.

So much for that myth.

Which bodes well for "The Joy of Cheesecake" by Dana Bovbjerg and Jeremey Iggers (Barron's $11.95.) There are nothing but cheesecake recipes in the book -- heavy, light, foreign, domestic. All kinds of crusts from whole-wheat to meringue; cakes made with cream cheese and cottage cheese, farmer cheese and blue cheese, gouda and feta and ricotta.

There is also some useful information on techniques and ingredients and advice on how to keep the cake from cracking.

And are the pictures, all in color, enticing! Forget the fruit desert. Indulge!

One of the more useful books on how to use a piece of equipment is "The Art of Food Processor Cooking" by Jane Salzfass Freiman (Contemporary Books, $6.95). Best for the beginner, who only has the manufacturer's directions from which to learn, Freiman's book tells you just about all the tricks of the trade. It will help you to make the most of your food processor.

You will get a better idea of what herbs and spices look like in their natural habitat from "Herbs and Spices," which has been edited by Waverley Root (Morrow, $19.95), than from most herb books on the market. The color pictures are lovely, much of the information useful. This is not a recipe book using herbs. It contains a bit of the lore, information on growing and processing, the fundamentals of seasoning, plus a few recipes using herbs and spices. Paula Wolfert has written two chapters, one on choosing herbs and spices, another on cooking with herbs. Nika Hazelton has written the chapter on the art of seasoning.

"The Cooks' Ingredients" by Philip Dowell and Adrain Bailey (Morrow, $19.95) is useful, silly and beautiful. It is also much more suited to English food than American, which is not surprising since it was first published in England.

At first this great big picture book of ingredients didn't seem useful at all, but a friend, who knows next to nothing about cooking or shopping, was leafing through it and expressed interest in knowing what certain things look like. Okay, but why do they have to include pictures of different colored jams, marmalades and jellies? And is there really anyone besides Rip Van Winkle who doesn't know what a marshmallow looks like?

Where the pictures of various types of fruits are shown, there are not enough examples of American varieties. And in this country Damson and prune plums are not the same, though they are shown as such in the book.

Unlike "The Cook's Catalogue" which listed brand names for the equipment it recommended, "The Cooks' Tools" by Susan Campbell (Morrow, $14.95) doesn't. It is a much smaller book, much less expensive to put together and because it doesn't list brand names, some may say not as useful. But once you have read the description of the items and seen the clear illustrations, you should be able to go out and buy what you want and need. And, if you are not near a well-stocked kitchen equipment shop, a book like this will help you order more knowledgably by mail.

Two books that should not be forgotten in this Christmas roundup were reviewed in detail earlier this year. You will want to remember them when you go out to do your Christmas shopping: "Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts" (Knopf, $15) and "Classic Indian Cooking" by Julie Sahni (Morrow, $15.95)