TWO CARTONS OF this fall's harvest of cookbooks beg for attention, but a reader grows full just looking at them. Picky eaters we become in the midst of such plenitude. But three stand out, for among those masses they have unique messages. The first simply compels you to cook; the others present cooking techniques and kitchen science -- James Beard with the what of cooking, Beverly Cox and Joan Whitman on the how of cooking, and Howard Hillman explaining why.

I was happy with the old one, but somebody obviously saw a need for a new James Beard, and so here he is, in this year's and his 19th book: "The New James Beard" (Knopf, $16.95). Another 598 pages of the endless ideas and thoughts on food from the food writer who, at age 78, has slimmed down but outgrown all honorary titles: The Dean of American Cookery, America's Eminent Food Writer, whatever.

So what's new, James Beard? First, the format. While the book is certainly chockablock with recipes, they don't end at the end. Many of them go on to variations. Beef Tongue With Provencal Tomato Sauce evolves to Tongue With Chicken Liver Sauce, With Madeira Sauce, With Spinach, and Tongue Pot-au-Feu. Not really new? Julia Child did it in her first volume, and certainly Beard himself has done it before? True, but it is a crisp and fresh-looking format, and why quibble? Beard himself calls his new approach more flexible, and further claims that "Almost every dish in the first six chapters can be served either as an appetizer or as a main course, including most of the soups, the salads, and the vegetables."

Beard deals with new ingredients: green peppercorns, turkey parts and vari-colored pastas. He brings old counterculture ingredients into the mainstream: whole grains, yogurt. He pays serious attention to new and newly respectable equipment: food processors, pasta machines and, being one of the first of the major food figures to do so, microwave ovens. And he incorporates new ideas in health: less salt and fat. (Beard has always had a healthy respect for complex starches, which are enjoying a revived respectability. And though he presents recipe variations that cut down on starches, he also continues -- thank goodness -- his love affair with the potato).

You could -- and can -- always count on Beard to turn tripe and plain old eggs into tempting prose. Omelets are hot and cold, layered and rolled. And he still knows how to make fish news: salmon tartare, shrimp kiev, salmon cheeks, plus pages of recipes for salt cod.

This time around, Beard flirts with the seasonings of Latin America and the Far East, particularly relegating meat to a seasoning rather than a main ingredient. He watches our calories -- with reduced-calorie pesto and a less-rich coquilles St. Jacques. He watches our pocketbooks, filling our plates with cheaper cuts of meat and neglected fish.

Still, he is the familiar old Beard, reissuing chili, rack of lamb, tournedos bordelaise. He anchors beginners with a chapter on basic stocks and sauces, finishes the book with a 60-page Concordance, his thoughts and suggestions on ingredients, their purchase, their storage, their use (on beets: "One of the few vegetables that is equally good canned or fresh"). Like the Beard we have always known, he is unflaggingly enthusiastic; nearly everything is one of his favorites. His recipes compel you with introductory notes and anecdotes. He introduces you to his New York friends (The Coach House restaurant with its black bean soup, the Palace restaurant with its mussel soup) and his predilections (a sprinkle of parmesan on anything that will take it, a dose of garlic with myriad kinds of fish).

And this time around he expresses inordinate sympathy for the harried householder. He has aimed largely for dishes that are quick, that use as few ingredients as possible while retaining their character. And he emphasizes the possibility of substituting ingredients.

This is a cookbook for all seasons, all moods and all combinations of ingredients you might have in your refrigerator.

As you settle in for a long, cold winter, "Cooking Techniques" by Beverly Cox with Joan Whitman, photographed by Steven Mays (Little, Brown; $24.95 until Dec. 31, $29.95 thereafter), can be as useful as a down quilt. Subtitled "How to Do Anything a Recipe Tells You To Do," it is virtually a cooking course at home; and at $25, it costs about what a single lesson would cost from equivalent teachers. Basically it is a book of black-and-white photographs that show what is often impossible to describe in a recipe: folding wontons or shu mai, carving turnips into flowers, kneading dough (and along the way showing exactly how the dough should look at each stage). There is no prose that could explain as photographs can how to carve an Aztec mushroom. And scooping out a zucchini to leave a scalloped shell is ripe for confusion without photographs.

This is a book for "ah ha!"s. So that's how you skin and bone a fish! So that's the way a quenelle is formed with two spoons! So that's the difference between the soft-ball and hard-crack stage of sugar syrup!

In 570 pages "Cooking Techniques" unlocks the mysteries of cracking a coconut (with hints such as straining the milk through a coffee filter) and halving an egg neatly (with a thread tied around the middle and pulled; you have to see it, of course). It covers a lot of territory that experienced cooks will have left behind: slicing and chopping, washing and drying greens. But the beginners will probably stay behind in those sections while the advanced cook meanders through shaping, pastry-wrapping and decorating a lamb "duck" or forming a vacherin.

"Cooking Techniques" is a workhorse rather than a frivolous coffee table picture book -- page after page of hands working. The photographs are, by and large, remarkably clear and detailed. And after a while the hands become familiar and take on a personality as identifiable as any cookbook prose.

It does include a visual dessert, a 32-page section of the techniques of presentation, luscious photographs of a flower bouquet of crudite's, stuffed eggs whimsically lined up in their carton, a melon swan and a lacy caramel cage for oeufs a la neige. Decorations are taught most effectively in this book; after all, you can not only see how to carve and shape, but also how lovely will be the results of your labor.

It is a book to instill confidence. If you cannot taste a recipe book to know it is right, at least with this one you can see that you are right.

It is, however, a book to use in concert with other cookbooks. It gives instructions, rather than recipes. In fact, it would have been nice if the authors had included some measurements and ingredients for some of its standard preparations so that readers would not have to flip back and forth from this book to a recipe book. It compensates, however, with ingenious cooking hints: how to make a pastry flower to decorate a pie, how to make brussels sprouts look like flowers, how to raise the rim of a quiche above its pan, how to quickly and accurately cut a paper liner for a ring mold or a paper cone for piping decorations. It explains -- shows, rather -- how to tell if eggs are fresh or eggs sufficiently beaten or a souffle' properly cooked.

James Beard tells you what to do with a spaghetti squash, but one look at the spaghetti squash cornucopia in "Cooking Techniques" tempts you to run out immediately and buy one. One might conclude from this book that one picture is worth a thousand recipes.

Your mother isn't always available to answer the phone. So there's Howard Hillman, with Kitchen Science (Houghton Mifflin, $11.95), "A Compendium of Essential Information for Every Cook."

This question-and-answer book is more about how things work than a first aid for cooking problems; it won't answer when you ask it why your meat exudes juice in the pan rather than browning properly. But it deepens your understanding of the cooking processes. It takes, for instance, five pages for hollandaise recipe, explaining -- perhaps for the first time between two covers -- the reasons for every step and all that recipe's foibles. It not only explains how to save a failed hollandaise, but suggests what to call it if you can't save it and serve it anyway.

The egg lore alone is a solid culinary education. Do you know why you add liquid to scrambled eggs? (The liquid steams as the egg mixture cooks, giving it a lighter texture.) How to add eggs to a hot liquid? How to smooth out a curdled sauce?

Cooking is not the only subject Hillman teaches. Buying, storing, freezing and defrosting are explained in ways that are bound to save some disappointments. He tells how to test a pan for hot spots (caramelize sugar in it, and see if it caramelizes evenly). And warns why brown paper bags are no longer safe for cooking in (they are now frequently made with recycled paper, and heat can cause the inedible chemicals used for recycling to enter the food). He adds that newspaper is safe for wrapping food if the newspapers are at least one week old -- thus their ink completely dry and non-transferable -- and come in contact with the food for less than an hour (except for the Sunday comics, whose chromatic inks are particularly noxious).

Even if it never occurred to you to ask, Hillman answers which end of fruit is sweeter (the blossom end) and how to make your own baking powder (which, by the way, James Beard does, too).

It can be easy to quarrel with this book: Some answers are incomplete, as when Hillman includes salty and fatty foods as poor candidates for freezing but neglects to mention hard-cooked egg whites, cooked potatoes and custards. Some answers seem merely showoffs; would anybody really ask whether an animal's state of mind during its final hours affects the storage life of meat? (Yes. But he doesn't explain how you can tell when you buy meat what the animal's mood was.) And crucial to such a book is cross-indexing so extensive that you can readily find the answer to your question without having to resort to reading through whole chapters. Hillman's index, nine pages, is simply too short.

But then again, if your are really fascinated by cooking, you might just read it cover to cover anyway, then already know the answers by the time the questions arise.

The following recipes are from "The New James Beard."

PIQUANT BROILED CHICKEN HALVES (6 servings) 1 cup ground walnuts 6 shallots, finely chopped 4 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup chopped parsley 1 teaspoon dry mustard Hot pepper sauce Three 2 1/2-pound broiling chickens, split, with backbone and neck removed 2/3 cup melted butter 1 teaspoon paprika

Combine the nuts, shallots, 4 tablespoons butter, salt, parsley, dry mustard, and 1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce to a smooth paste. Loosen the skin on the chicken breasts by sliding your hand between skin and flesh and stuff the paste under the skin. Combine the melted butter, paprika, and 3 dashes hot pepper sauce.

Arrange chicken bone side up on the broiler rack and brush with the melted butter mixture. Broil 4 inches from the heat, then turn, brush skin side with butter, and broil for 12 to 14 minutes, basting again.

BAKED TOMATOES STUFFED WITH MOZZARELLA

A versatile and attractive little dish I like to serve as a first course, with veal scaloppine, or as a light luncheon entree. Dieters who live in parts of the country where fresh mozzarella is made should look for the cheese made with skim milk and no salt. (4 to 6 servings) 4 to 6 large, ripe, firm tomatoes 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil Salt, freshly ground black pepper 3 tablespoons olive oil 1/4 to 1/2 pound mozzarella cheese (amount depends on size of tomatoes) 2 tablespoons minced fresh basil, or 2 teaspoons dried basil

Cut a slice from the top of each tomato. Using a teaspoon, scoop out the pulp and seeds. Turn the tomato shells upside down on a platter and allow them to drain for about 15 minutes. Use some of the oil to brush a baking dish just large enough to hold the tomatoes. Place them in the dish. Season each tomato cavity with salt and pepper, and drizzle 1 teaspoon olive oil into each one. Chop the mozzarella fine and mix it with the basil. Stuff the tomatoes with this mixture. With a pastry brush, brush the outside skin of the tomatoes with the remaining olive oil. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until the mozzarella has melted. Serve hot.

CLAM HASH (4 to 6 servings)

I've been a clam lover ever since my childhood in Oregon, when we used to dig for clams at the beach and cook them in every way imaginable. This hash was a family favorite. 6 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup finely chopped onion 1 1/2 cups minced steamed clams* or drained canned clams (reserve clam liquid) 1 1/2 cups finely diced cooked potatoes Freshly ground black pepper 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce 3 eggs 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese 3 tablespoons chopped parsley

Melt the butter in a heavy skillet, preferably cast iron. Add the onion and saute' until just transparent. Add the drained clams and potatoes and press down with a spatula. Sprinkle with pepper lightly and add the worcestershire sauce. Cook about 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a fork or spatula and mixing in some of the crust from the bottom. Press down again. Beat the eggs with 1/4 cup of the reserved clam liquid (this intensifies the clam flavor), combine with the cheese and pour over the hash. Cover tightly until the egg is set, about 6 to 8 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.

*Note: Steam the clams in 1 cup white or red wine until they open -- discard any that do not open. Strain the broth through two thicknesses of cheesecloth and reserve.

WILTED SPINACH SALAD (4 servings)

A warm version of spinach salad, with a soy dressing, that makes a good first course. 1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, finely chopped 4 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1/2 cup thinly sliced water chestnuts Freshly ground pepper 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 pound spinach, washed, stems removed, and dried Garnish: 2 hard-boiled eggs, coarsely chopped

Cook the garlic in the oil over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the soy sauce, water chestnuts and pepper to taste. Cook 1 minute, tossing the water chestnuts. Add the lemon juice and blend. Then add the spinach and toss as you would a salad until the spinach is just wilted. Taste and correct the seasoning, if necessary. Transfer to a salad bowl and garnish with the chopped eggs.