WITH SEVERAL HUNDRED cookbooks being published each year one might expect that every dish and every technique that could be described in print had already been disclosed and plagiarized by now.
But just as we inevitably get hungry even after a holiday feast that would seem to leave us full forever, those of us who feast on cookbooks cannot resist nibbling at yet another. Even in this lean year, when we expected fewer cookbooks than ever to be published, we are inundated with hundreds and among them find dozens we would love to own, to read, to cook from. Some, of our favorite authors are back with another subject to teach us. New authors have focused intensive research on Chinese cuisine, Spanish, Italian, even American. Caterers of note have decorated our coffee tables with their full-color art, while Irena Chalmers continues in the opposite direction, to issue small-scale beauties, slim and delicate volumes by the nation's cooking teachers.
Most happily, the cult of the personality is back. The subjects newly in print range from Burgundian cooking to loquats, and the cuisines of China and Italy are intensively dissected. Beyond that, it is a year of graceful prose, of being introduced to charming and intelligent people who happen to shine their talent on food. There is a lot of good reading in this year's larder. The Tops -- A Baker's Half-Dozen
"The Great Book of French Cuisine" by Henri Paul Pellaprat (Vendome, $37.50): The most impressive book this season is not a new one, but one published in 1935, reissued and retitled "The Great Book of French Cuisine," by Henri Paul Pellaprat, long the director of Paris' Cordon Bleu school. At nearly 1,200 pages, it is now a bargain -- $37.50. It is also more than you are ever likely to need -- although there must be home cooks impelled to take up the challenge of truffled turkey arranged in a two-headed kneeling horse carved from two pounds of butter. But some day, if you cook, you are going to need a mirepoix, a sauce espagnole, a tomato fondue. And 750,000 people found this book important enough to pay the $100 or so it originally cost; it's been published in five languages and considered basic to a serious cooking library. Encyclopedic rather than personal, Pellaprat's remains the textbook to have for French cooking, and you needn't bother waiting for it to come out in paperback.
"The Victory Garden Cookbook" by Marian Morash (Knopf, $25): Just turn to page 20 -- a color photograph of Marian Morash, the sun sparkling on her blond hair and blue scarf, pulling a bunch of beets from her garden. Continue through two pages of beet text and five pages of recipes, from beet tartar to beet chutney. Read the "recipecard" instructions for storage and preserving, microwaving, hints, leftovers and yields. Repeat for 37 other vegetables and you'll end up wanting to live in the kitchen of Marian Morash, pull weeds in her garden, cook a kohlrabi.
"The Book of Bread" by Judith and Evan Jones (Harper & Row, $15.95) [See accompanying story on E1]: For Thanksgiving dinner I had the Jones' Spiced Cranberry Rolls. I ate my turkey leftovers on the Jones' Pumpernickel Bread with Sourdough Starter. I became a true believer in the lacy and grainy texture of Semolina Bread. And finally I understood why the nation's most prominent cookbook editor would join with her author-husband to write yet another bread book when Bernard Clayton and James Beard had already done it so well. This one is full of old lore -- how to make yeast from hops, the discovery of baking soda, flour mills you can visit -- and new developments -- triticale flour, making dough in the food processor. It covers not just yeast breads but quick, sweet and breakfast breads, doughnuts and dumplings and Chinese steamed buns. Its discussion of bread crust and the effect of various shapes on the bread's texture is fascinating. Best of all, with this book you can bake not only great bread, but all kinds of great bread.
"The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking" by Barbara Tropp (Morrow, $24.95): If Julia Child had studied Chinese we might not have needed this book. And in fact, with so many Chinese cookbooks of quality on the shelves we couldn't imagine we'd need another Chinese cookbook anyhow. But Chinese cookbooks have gone beyond the mere recipe collection; this is written by a Chinese scholar out of Barnard and Princeton, who lived for years in Taiwan and studied cooking as seriously as Oriental art and language. It's her alternative to a doctoral thesis on Tang dynasty poetics. The result is 623 pages, no less than five of them devoted to the stir-frying procedure. It explains why each step is necessary, illustrates persuasively why deep-frying in a wok saves oil, even tells what to do if you burn yourself. For just the "no-poach" method of cooking chicken and the techniques of home smoking, this book is worth its soy sauce. After one chapter you will understand, for example, about the types of cleavers, their uses and their care. And the recipes for "little dishes" or appetite arousers could solve years of cocktail-hour problems. Of course all that exposition -- seasoning and setting the color of the chicken, steeping to deepen the flavors, serving and storing instructions -- take space; the recipes' texts are long and complicated, requiring reading ahead. But they are good recipes, many of them unique to Americans and -- in the case of desserts inspired by Chinese cuisine for American tastes, or recipes substituting fresh jicama, sun chokes or apples for canned water chestnuts -- unique altogether. Tropp writes clearly and with a good bit of playfulness: a sauce might be described as "a spicy conspiracy." She lets you get to know her, her teachers and, in a new way, the culture of the Chinese kitchen.
"The Enchanted Broccoli Forest" by Mollie Katzen (Ten Speed, $11.95) [See accompanying story on E1.] and "Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook" by Alice Waters (Random House, $16.95): California is certainly the wave of the present, with two refreshingly original -- and simply refreshing -- volumes of recipes. Katzen is already known for her inventive vegetarian recipes and Waters' restaurateur fame preceded her publication. But what Katzen does for whole grains and tofu, and what Waters does for garlic and goat cheese, is to shove them from supporting roles to center stage. And this year we are all eating better for it.
"The Silver Palate Cookbook" by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins with Michael McLaughlin (Workman, $16.95): Another ethnic cookbook, this time American. But this is no scholar's exposition on the history of a cuisine and how to care for lamb chops, it is the stuff that scholars will some day study: American kitchen folk art. Rosso and Lukins have for five years run New York's most famous haute carryout and sell their delicacies-in-jars from coast to coast. Here are their ideas and recipes for you to reproduce at home. Sketched with whimsy, it reads more like a good gossip session than a well-ordered course. You'll learn what's new and fashionable and clever these days. That's all wrapping paper, though, for the meat of the book: a collection of wonderful recipes. Any doubters in the audience? Come back tomorrow after you've tried the Chocolate Hazelnut Cake, which the authors, with no unwarranted pride, call "The best chocolate cake in the universe." Going the Whole Course
It is such a temptation to try to learn all of something in one book. Thus each year we will seek and find the cooking-course-in-a-book, pay the hefty price and try to digest it all in one fell swoop. This year it is French, Italian or the whole world under one cover. From France comes "The La Verenne Cooking Course" by Anne Willan (Morrow, $34.95), expensive and useful if not irresistible. The photographs here are not only bursting with lovely color but serve a purpose, illustrate useful sights. Six shapes of fried potatoes, all photographed, require six different times and techniques. The photographs of brioche dough, showing just how sticky it should be, are nearly as good as having this Parisian cooking school come to your house. But what most sets it apart from the many is that Anne Willan, once a Washington food editor, has the cross-national experience to span gaps; the text is well written, clear and newsy, spanning the classic and modern. The recipes are illustrations of the text, terse and sending you from one sub-recipe to another; this is a book to buy for the lessons more than for the recipes.
Lydie Marshall went the other direction, from Paris to the U.S., to start her New York cooking school. Likewise, in her 22 cooking lessons, "Cooking with Lydie Marshall" (Knopf, $18.95), the focus is the recipes; they are the vehicle to introduce techniques such as how to shape eclairs, how to render chicken fat. Her green salad starts with making your own vinegar, but she is also practical enough to include "how to use overgrown zucchini from your garden."
For Giuliano Bugialli's second cookbook, "Classic Techniques of Italian Cooking" (Simon and Schuster, $19.95), the Italian historian-cook has used the cooking-by-pictures format Jacques Pepin made so fashionable a few years ago. Step-by-step black-and-white photos illustrate each recipe, sometimes useful and often unnecessary but reassuring. The strength of Bugialli's books are his recipes, stretching through history and including such exciting ideas as duck pie with prosciutto, quail in a nest of Tuscan bread, dishes that are steamed or cooked in clay. Certainly these are simple ones, but the most interesting are all-day projects. In one, however, a baked pasta mold, we wished we had stopped at the sauce (recipe below), for it was spectacularly good, but distributed in too much pasta for the baking process, thus the flavor of the sauce was diluted.
"Jean Anderson Cooks" (Morrow, $19.95) is a book you might refer to often if it were on your shelf. Full of charts and tables, with the metric equivalents given for everything, it is a comprehensive cookbook geared to contemporary households. Not only does it describe the four kinds of veal available and how to cook them, it hints to dieters that broiling chicken with celery adds a buttery flavor without adding calories. Your mother isn't in your kitchen very often? Jean Anderson could stand in nicely.
With all the photo possibilities in an encyclopedia that ranges from aardvark to zwirn, one wonders why L. Patrick Coyle, Jr., chose to illustrate "The World Encyclopedia of Food" (Facts on File, $40) with photos of "uncooked chicken" and "cherries" (stemless, yet). This is no book of beauty. Nor is it a book for researching dishes; you won't even find tacos. The omissions are odd; corned beef is included, even giraffe (its bone marrow is regarded as a delicacy), but silverside is defined only as a fish, not as a cut of beef. This book is, however, breathtaking in scope, from its useful charts of sodium content, calories and such, to its astonishing list of foodstuffs and their definitions. Where else could you find, on a single page, glumseand gnemon? French Chefs at Home
Still smarting from charges of foie gras snobbery, Paul Bocuse returns with "no truffles, no caviar" to startle you with "Paul Bocuse in Your Kitchen" (Pantheon, $18.95). He probably could have learned as well as taught these recipes in your kitchen, though. Potatoes baked in foil? (Americans are just unlearning that.) Boiled rice? Macaroni and cheese? Boiled eggs? An entire page is devoted to ham and eggs, then another to bacon and eggs. It is almost a relief when Bocuse returns to chicken cooked in chicken blooc, to hare and to eel.
Alain Senderens, chef-proprietor of Paris' celebrated L'Archestrate restaurant, has drafted his wife, Eventhia, to help bring "The Three-Star Recipes of Alain Senderens" (Morrow, $22.50) down to earth. It is purely a recipe book, with the interesting -- and astonishingly workable -- combinations that have established Senderens as a marvel. Here is his lobster with vanilla. He teams veal with cucumbers and tea, with lime and ginger cream. His fruit salad incorporates Chinese 5-spice powder, lemon grass, coriander, ginger, lemons and lime. His sauteed pears with brandy and cream also include 20 peppercorns. The photographs are few but stunning.
Jacques Pepin appears this time in his family's country kitchen, and has upgraded the now-popular step-by-step photos to color. "Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pepin" (Harper & Row, $19.95 hardback, $10.95 paperback) teaches homey foods like vegetable soup with corn dumplings, and finds wonderful uses for leftovers. The print version of a television series, this volume is full of dishes that are simple and quick but not boring, and fascinating hints such as keeping cut onions white by rinsing and drying them. Unfortunately, in print the recipes are crowded, and there has been no attempt to keep an entire recipe on facing pages. Small flaw, given how much there is to learn here. Curl Up and Get Acquainted
This season's cookbook shelves are filled with people as well as foods you want to meet. Jo Bettoja and Anna Maria Cornetto teach cooking in Rome and gathered the recipes for "Italian Cooking in the Grand Tradition" (Dial, $14.95) from friends' old cooks, family retainers and gamekeepers' wives and along the way they tell of a grand and delicious life filled with hunts and forests of mushrooms. While there is an unearthly amount of truffle paste, wild boar and unobtainable mushrooms in the recipes, there is also a variety from simple but intriguing -- frozen raspberries pureed in a blender with white wine for an instant sherbet -- to complex and intriguing -- pizza crust with parmesan, pasta souffle, fettucine balls, tomato sauce cooked in the sun.
What Barbara Tropp has done for Chinese cooking, Penelope Casas has done for Spanish -- but without the competition -- in "The Foods & Wines of Spain" (Knopf, $17.95). She has put down on paper the sunshine and aromas and vibrancy of Spain, revealed the delightful details of Spanish milk-fed lamb and the Spanish passion for eggs. And having tasted Casas' tripe Madrid-style made by her own hands, I can attest to the superiority of her cooking. Yet the recipes we tested, from claims in romesco sauce to brazo de gitano, a custard-filled cake roll, were disappointing. Well worth reading, this text, but worth cooking from only if you have a talent for adjusting recipes.
Nina Simonds, on the other hand, has filled "Classic Chinese Cuisine" (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95) with excellent recipes, in particular a vast assortment of vegetarian and bean curd dishes. Another year this would be the top Chinese cookbook. But it has neither the depth nor the explicitness of Tropp's book, has presented the ingredients in an awkward format, and sometimes leaves too much to the imagination in the recipe text.
Two excellent crafters of phrases as well as of recipes are Jane Grigson and James Villas. And both have produced books just made for long winter evenings by the fireplace (with the kitchen well within reach). "Jane Grigson's Fruit Book" (Atheneum, $19.95) will keep you yearning for cape gooseberries and fooling around with more apples. Villas' "American Taste" (Arbor House, $15.) walks you though some mighty interesting corners of the U.S. He wrestles and ties down the one-and-only right way to fry a chicken, and added to our family tradition the one-and-only perfect cornbread turkey stuffing. No doubt this book will appear, yellowed and stained, in my great-great-grandchild's library as necessary for Thanksgivings ever hence.
If you could tell a book by its cover half of this season's would be French provincial; tiny-flowered prints dress an overweening proportion. It is warranted, however, for Mireille Johnston's "Cuisine of the Rose" (Random House, $16.95). The province in this case is Burgundy, and the book is an evocative portrait of the cuisine of the region that can teach you how to make creme de cassis and herbed cheeses. Johnston includes some of the most interesting simple recipes: wine and vegetable soup, garlic simmered in wine and spread on toast, french fries tossed with raw eggs, garlic and vinegar. So much garlic we would have expected, but the Burgundian surprise is an abundance of mint and pumpkin.
French provincial patterns also identify the clever ongoing series of books published by Irena Chalmers, all available in paperback for $6.95 at kitchenware stores. Not only are they inexpensive and pretty, the books are efficient volumes produced by experts -- the country's cooking teachers, each on a well-defined subject. This small publishing company, hardly more than a year old, captured two prizes in this year's Tastemaker Awards -- for Lorna Sass's "Christmas Feasts from History" (which could replace "A Christmas Carol" for family holiday readalouds) and Barbara Kafka's "American Food and California Wine." I have also grown fond of Nathalie Dupree's "Cooking of the South" for its baked onion flowers, grits roulade and she-crab soup, even if she does rely unconscionably on cola for ham gravy and barbecue sauce. And Peter Kump's "Quiche and Pate" has shown me how limited my imagination was not to have dreamed possible spinach-mint, Mexican avocado and cheese, liptauer and "fear of pastry" quiches. I also liked the idea of his fruit pate in summer and winter versions. And to know the variety of America, see "The International Association of Cooking Schools Cookbook," which Chalmers published ($9.95). Browse through, pick the recipes that impress you and plan next summer's vacation to include a trip to that cooking teacher's locale for a course. Better than the Mobil Guide for finding something good to eat in America's cities and towns.
Elizabeth Schneider Colchie has done more than she promises in "Ready When You Are" (Crown, $15.95). In addition to do-ahead recipes that we found excellent, she included handy tables for cooking grains which give you proper proportions for four or six servings to make your party mathematics easier.
When you tire of cooking, retire with "Culture and Cuisine" by Jean-Francois Revel (Doubleday, $24.95), an erudite history of food that is also as absorbing as many a novel.
That Revel is a critic, editor and political analyst is apparent as you read his book. But it takes no more than a glance to see that "Grand Finales" by Dick Taeuber (Barron's, $12.95) is a statistical analyst. It is probably the first -- and certainly the most beautiful -- dessert book to have a 14-page chart of variations of chocolate mousse. If you want a description of every liqueur you might encounter and when to use it, or care to develop an obsession for pousse cafe, it was written for you.
You may not be able to afford to throw a lavish party this year, but you can dream over this season's two extravagant-entertaining books, "Glorious Food" by Christopher Idone (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, $40) and "Entertaining" by Martha Stewart (Potter, $35). Both are beautiful, both are filled with clever little ideas and recipes that are raised from simplicity to glory by their presentation. And both are books that ultimately may make you want to be invited to a party, preferably done by one of these caterers, rather than to dirty your book and your own silver. If a choice were to be made between them, mine would be "Glorious Food," for its sheer beauty, its freely imaginative photography. While it doesn't make me want to go out and buy a new skillet, it does make me want to buy a new coffee table.