If last year's cast of cookbook characters reflected a certain splitting of the national cooking subconscious -- one half exhorting "eat 'lite' or don't eat at all," the other half crying "I want dessert and you'd better put whipped cream on it, too" -- this year's evidences, if anything, a slightly unsettling chaos.

If you can't count on trends, what can you count on?

This is the time of year when publishers tend to bring forth their biggest books -- the ones with the best-known authors, the largest advertising budgets and the most grandiose hopes.

When you sit looking through these books as a group, in most years they sort themselves out into categories. A few big books, usually by big-name authors or associated with big-name organizations such as Silver Palate, rise to the top and whether they're good or bad they are the ones the publishers push, the booksellers shout about and people (usually) buy.

This year that center seems not to be holding. But never mind what the rather random nature of this year's collection says about publishing or trends or big names. The question is, what does it do for you, the person who cooks and wants good cookbooks to read and to use?

One result might be that, freed from vast windstorms of hype, cookbook buyers will discover some offbeat topics, no-name authors or little books (literally little) that are just what they've been looking for.

A notable relief this year is the great hole where oversized, over-produced, $50 books used to be. These books were gorgeous -- that word was always applied -- and sometimes informative but rarely seen in the kitchen with the pots and pans. "Did you ever meet anyone who cooked from one of those books?" I asked a woman who sells cookbooks for a living. "Cooks from them?" she asked, puzzled.

There were some stars in the genre. Martha Stewart's books are cited by most people, as is "Glorious Food," a star turn by Christopher Idone that came out in 1982, and the Giuliano Bugialli book called "Foods of Italy." In books like these, especially Martha Stewart's and Christopher Idone's, the presentation of the food -- how it looks on the plate or platter -- is of such importance that cooks were willing to pay lots of money to see how it's done.

But there is a saturation point for such books. Even the most profligate cookbook buyers will own only a few of these books, she or he might own dozens of "text" books and keep right on buying them from now into eternity. The coffee table has just so much room.

On the contrary, there is evidence that more cooks than ever are turning to the little books -- paperbacks that sell for $3 to $10 or so -- when they want to get started in a particular cuisine, when they want a series of recipes on a very specific topic but don't want to spend $20, or when they want a gift to send along with the wok or the pasta machine.

In general you'll find these books in cookware stores, hardware stores or department stores rather than in regulation bookstores, since they tend to disappear among the rows of more substantial-looking hardback books, especially if they are bound without a spine as a magazine is.

Having their books get swallowed up visually by the big guys is one of publishers' major nightmares. So in order for people to see them, these books need their own racks where they can be displayed face-out. To reinforce the visual signal, publishers usually produce them in series -- many little books in the same size and shape with similar cover designs but different titles.

But such a book might be just what you're looking for. They are always light on the details of the author's peripatetic life ("I first ate this dish on my honeymoon in 1976. We were in a little trattoria on the Adriatic coast ... ") They are not awash in personality, either, since it's hard to get too many superfluous words into a 48- or 64-page book. They are not overwhelmed by the personal glamour and virtuosity of the author. In other words, they get directly to the business at hand, which is cooking.

When these books first began appearing on the market, they were unacceptable to many experienced cooks because they relied too heavily on ersatz ingredients, mixes or unauthentic recipes.

Early Chinese cook books, for example, were chock full of substitutions for real Asian ingredients since it was assumed the cook couldn't get ahold of them and wouldn't want them even if they could. Now we can get the ingredients. And cooks are less tolerant of ersatz results, more and more of them having tasted the real thing in restaurants.

Why is it important to publisher, bookseller and cook alike for a $3 book to contain authentic recipes using real ingredients? For one thing, such a book allows the cook to get a toe in the water. And increasingly, cooks want to get their toes into the genuine water, not some isolated backwash.

Bill Cates, whose company, the American Cooking Guild, puts out about 20 little books on various subjects, cites the example of his Cajun cookbook, which came out the same year as Paul Prudhomme's larger work. (Prudhomme, you will recall, is the larger-than-life proprietor of the New Orleans restaurant K-Paul's, and a scholar of Cajun food.) Cates suspected, correctly, that Cajun cooking would be big that year, so he quickly found an author who knew the subject and could produce real Cajun recipes. At least some people who wanted to find out if they liked all those roux and seasonings were more willing to spend $3 on the project than they were $20. That others of them went on to take the $20 plunge is okay with everybody.

The books are also useful for the cook who is looking, for example, for a recipe for the best cheesecake in the world. Arlene Gillis, whose bookstore in Baltimore, Books for Cooks, carries more than 2,500 titles, says "you may not want to spend $12.95 on a book that's just about cheesecake, but for $3, hey ... why not?"

Exactly. Three dollars is only a few cents more than you'd pay for a food magazine, which may or may not have a recipe you're looking for. So these $3 books, and even the ones slightly more costly, are perfect for specific types of recipes and for getting your toes into the waters of an unknown cuisine.

So look for these little books. Check such publishers as American Cooking Guild, Irena Chalmers, Sunset, HP Books and Ideals Books.

Meanwhile, the big houses are not exactly sitting on their laurels. They are putting out the big books, and while they are not really, really big this year there are some interesting ones among them. If you want to know what folks are already buying, look in the direction of Barbara Kafka's book "Microwave Gourmet," Craig Claiborne's book on southern cuisine, and "Southwest Tastes" by Ellen Brown. (See reviews that follow.)

Still to come this fall is what's said to be a blockbuster on pasta, a Crown book on tea (to go with the four or five that came out last year) and a large technique book by Jacques Pepin.

"Microwave Gourmet" by Barbara Kafka (William Morrow, 1987, $19.95): Mouths have been quivering in anticipation of this new book by Kafka, who knows her way around every nook and cranny of the food business. Advance publicity for the book promised a new approach to microwave cookery -- this would be the first microwave book to produce fine-tuned food that even "gourmets" could serve. Kafka promised a happy marriage of microwave technology with interesting recipes. And if there's anybody who would have the guts and enthusiasm to carry that project off, it would be Kafka.

But the book has problems, and they are of such a dimension that it's difficult to see how they could have gotten past Kafka, who is as interested in quality as anybody, and past her helpers and editors. A good number of the recipes just don't work as they are written.

Two specifics from my own experience:

The garlic cream -- which should be a thick, unctuous sauce with an intense garlic flavor -- was problematic in both its steps. In a 4-cup glass measure, per the instructions, the cream boiled over after half its cooking time. In the second step the cream caramelized and browned 3 minutes before it was supposed to be done -- and done in this case means thickened, not browned. Kafka says it must be my particular oven, a Sharp convection-microwave with metal sides. As for the timing in the second step, Kafka says maybe I lost some cream when it boiled over. It tried the second part of recipe again, however, and the same thing happened.

I made a meat loaf as well. Its flavor was fine but the vegetables didn't cook adequately in the time specified and the meat loaf didn't fit in the size pan specified, which in turn threw the timing of the recipe off. It produced so much liquid that in anything but a deep platter there is danger of it overflowing in the oven. Kafka says the recipe has always worked for her.

But an acquaintance of mine who teaches microwave cooking had the same problems with this recipe and reports problems with seven other recipes as well, among them a chicken recipe, a sate' sauce, a cake and recipe for truffles. She tried one vegetable recipe, and it worked. Other cooks have reported similar difficulties, especially with meats.

Kafka is very concerned about all this, as well as some accusations by the microwave industry that her deep-fat frying and covering-with-plastic-wrap techniques are dangerous. Manufacturers have pointed out that they won't warrant their machines if they are used the way Kafka says to use them. She counters by saying that no conventional stove manufacturer would risk a lawsuit by telling consumers to deep-fat-fry on top of the stove either -- that it's inherently dangerous but actually safer in the microwave.

As for the recipes not working, Kafka maintains that if you read the introduction and general instructions carefully, follow the recipes to the letter, then make adjustments for your machine, they should work. I suspect that there will be significant adjustments in the second edition.

"Craig Claiborne's Southern Cooking" by Craig Claiborne (Times Books, 1987, $19.95): Craig Claiborne has had a distinguished career in food and journalism and with this book he seems to have come home. As food editor of the New York Times and as a cookbook author, his influence over the past 30 years on how Americans cook and eat has been formidable.

Some accuse him of snobbery, and in fact his opinions have tended toward the French-chef school of cooking. He has no patience with microwave ovens, for example, time-saving not being among his highest priorities.

But over the years the recipes in his books have always worked. And he has introduced Americans to foreign cuisines gently but firmly. His early cookbooks, produced when nobody outside of New York could get exotic ingredients, managed nevertheless to present authentic recipes.

Now Claiborne seems to have come full circle back to his origins as an old southern boy -- albeit an old southern boy with servants. Mama was there but so was the help. In "Southern Cooking" Claiborne has reproduced the recipes of his childhood -- chicken croquettes, hoppin' john, grits -- but also the recipes, old and brand-new, of other southerners as well. Even Tex-Mex dishes such as fajitas win inclusion here.

There is some reminiscing here but it's not oppressive and doesn't interfere with the work, which is cooking. You can count on Claiborne's recipes, which cover a wide range from appetizers to candy. In fact, if you like the food of the south, you could probably live from this book.

"Ken Hom's East Meets West Cuisine" by Ken Hom (Simon and Schuster, 1987, $19.95): Ken Hom is a relatively young guy who is considered a scholar in the field of Chinese cooking. In a way he's the perfect person to translate Chinese cooking for Americans; he grew up in the States but was nurtured in Chinese by his mother and other relatives.

Over and over from the best among the cookbook authors (who, one hopes, are also cooks) we read of a lifelong and consuming interest in food that began in early childhood, usually at the dinner table listening to the relatives declaim on the subject. But then young Ken moved to France, where he notes that he found a whole culture as preoccupied with food as his Chinese relatives.

And it's this conjunction that is of interest in the East Meets West Cuisine, since in this new book Hom is marrying the two cultures, and adding a little American for seasoning.

At first glance, the browser fears that this book will be another cutesy proposition in which wildly dissimilar and seemingly incompatible ingredients are locked together in a tortured marriage. But this is not the case. By using Asian and French ingredients and techniques in concert, Hom has done the best that inventors can do: He's produced truly new flavors that are not only truly "interesting" -- a word that's often code for "awful" -- but also taste good.

Look, for example, at the Chinese ratatouille. The Chinese what? Hom uses mainly Asian ingredients -- Chinese eggplant, silk squash, water chestnuts, and basil leaves -- but combines them with tomatoes into something that is not exactly a stir-fry, though the vegetables stay fairly crisp, and not exactly a stew either, though with tomatoes and chicken stock it does have a saucy quality.

Another joy of this book, besides its flavor, is the ease with which most of the recipes are prepared. There are things in here you can actually have for dinner, even on a work night. The chicken breasts with red peppers and bok choy in cream sauce (see recipe below) is one of the stellar examples of the quick but not "kwik" cuisine.

And the recipes work, which shouldn't seem like an extra added attraction in a cookbook, but too often is.

"Dolci: The Fabulous Desserts of Italy" by Virginie and George Elbert (Simon and Schuster, 1987, $17.95): The Elberts explore a part of Italian cuisine (possibly the only part) that hasn't yet been mined significantly by Americans. Though not Italian, they seem to have spent most of their lives traveling and eating in Italy, walking kilometers in pursuit of the new torta or cookie. Their mission is to prove that Italians eat more than just fruit and cheese for dessert (though they do do some wonderful things with fruit and cheese), and it seems that they have done this.

The Elberts point out that the art of pastry making "traveled from Italy to Europe several centuries ago" -- a subject that is still in dispute as far as the French are concerned, by the way -- and that those sweets must still be found somewhere in Italy. It turns out that readers of this book who are also familiar with French pastries will see the similarities right away. Who stole from whom we'll leave it to the French and the Italians to decide.

You'll find recipes in here for luscious cakes -- based mainly on genoise and sponge cake and buttercream. You'll find custards and puff pastry, fruit tarts and marzipan, cookies and little assorted pastries -- still sounding familiar? -- with possibly more emphasis on fruits and nuts for embellishment than in other cuisines. The flavors tend to be very rich and concentrated.

One problem with this book, as with other pastry books, is that by necessity many of the recipes refer to other recipes. All the basic recipes -- for cake bases, glazes, tart doughs and fillings -- are listed only once. They are then flavored and combined in different ways to produce the recipe at hand.

Obviously cookbook writers and editors have not figured out an easy way around this, but the result for the potential cook is that he or she must be resigned to flipping pages with floury fingers to find the other parts of the recipe.

But the recipes are clearly written -- they lead gently without wordiness -- and there is no confusion in the instructions. Nor are any ingredients left stranded.

If you are a pastry lover and enthusiastic pastry cook, this book may lead you in directions you want to go. If you are into travel-guide reading you will want to read the introductions to each recipe, but if not they can be easily forgone.

"Nanny's Texas Table" by Larry Ross, (Simon and Schuster, 1987, $18.95): As for Nanny's, it's another posy for regional cooking, this time the cooking of one specific ranch in Texas. Nanny was a formidable woman, matriarch and boss for a cattle ranching operation that at one time comprised 248,000 acres of open space, surely enough to generate anxiety in any city dweller who tries to comprehend it.

The author, Larry Ross, was a godson of "Nanny," whose real-life name was a more distinguished Martha Houghton. Ross was impressed with the food he ate during summers spent there during childhood. And it wasn't just him and Nanny, either; a ranch with that many acres has a huge contingent of helpers to feed every day, so it must have been something more like a restaurant. It turns out that Ross's childhood impressions -- which so often vaporize in the cold light of adulthood -- stand, assuming these recipes are representative.

Ross is something of an amateur historian, with a historian's desire for accuracy, so if Nanny wouldn't have put her barbecue sauce on shrimp that information is included along with the recipe for barbecued shrimp. The food is Texan rather than Tex-Mex -- lots of barbecues, lots of fruits in jams and jellies, lots of beans, corn and cheese.

Ross's book has value as a cookbook, but also as a memoir.

"The Prudhomme Family Cookbook" (William and Morrow, 1987, $19.95): Who would have thought that there could be more than one Prudhomme? But it turns out there are 11 Prudhommes, a family of brothers and sisters who are smaller individually than the great Paul but add up to a lot of cooks. Paul Prudhomme's first book, "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen," was the one that pushed Cajun cooking to the front of our consciousness, even if he did use margarine. The food was so lush, so deeply soothing that a little margarine couldn't dissuade us.

The current book, with Paul's picture on the cover but everybody's recipes inside, is so heartfelt that if you read all the way through the introduction you may end up misty-eyed with understanding. It's awkwardly written, repetitive and probably the most sincerely loving tribute to a family that I remember reading, at least in a cookbook.

Prudhomme says that getting people to use these recipes was not his first priority -- he just wanted to get them down on paper. Reading through the book, it becomes clear that this food is what Madeleine Kamman would call "cuisine de misere" -- the kind of stuff you ate if you had no money but loved good food. Cuisine de misere, no matter what language it's in, is the kind of humble food that people associate with "home." You don't get it in restaurants and you haven't gotten it in cookbooks until recently. Whether the culinarily correct set will want to go out and shoot squirrels remains to be seen.

Prudhomme's recipes work, are always full of flavor and soul, and will invariably leave you feeling satisfied.

"The Wooden Spoon Bread Book" by Marilyn M. Moore (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987, $19.95): This is a sincere, dedicated little book that almost smells good. What it's dedicated to is bread in multiple varieties.

Bread is broadly defined here to include flat breads, pancakes, crackers and doughnuts. Moore has done a masterful job of introducing the novice to techniques and what-ifs. There is even a short section on making your own recipes. Experienced bread bakers learn this automatically after a while -- proportions of flour to yeast to liquid are more or less constant for breads from pizza dough to whole-wheat loaves -- but it's a helpful demystification for the first-timer.

Moore has the loving but not overbearing style of a good kindergarten teacher -- she knows her subject and she wants readers to enjoy it too. Recipes are written clearly but not abruptly, and the ones I've tried have worked.

"The Breakfast Book" by Marion Cunningham (Knopf, 1987,$17.95): Now here is a nice little book. Cookbooks, like other books, are communications from the author to the reader, and this one communicates a deep respect for breakfast, for food in general, for cooking and, best of all, for the potential reader and cook. There is also a certain security in evidence in her writing and her recipes -- no apologia when she uses butter, no shy demurrals about opulent flavors.

Breakfast as per Cunningham is a celebration, the kind of thing your family would bring you on Sunday morning if they really loved you. There are so many possibilities here one begins to feel faint with the burden: lemon yogurt muffins? Or custard-filled cornbread? Or cinnamon butter puffs?

There is even a chapter on meat and fish appropriate for breakfast, including addresses of companies that mail-order real country hams. Then there are some wonderful custards and puddings that any child faking a stomach ache in order to stay home from school -- or work -- would appreciate beyond measure.

"The Old World Kitchen" by Elisabeth Luard (Bantam Books, 1987, $22.50): This is a book that anybody interested in European home cooking -- not restaurant cooking -- should buy. Its subtitle, "The Rich Tradition of European Peasant Cooking," defines the project. The cover, a rich reproduction of a food-and-peasants painting, suggests Luard's attitudes toward her work. There's a depth to this cuisine and to Luard's presentation of it that is quite seductive.

Luard lives in England and has traveled throughout Europe, collecting recipes from fishermen, housewives, innkeepers. She's lived for periods of time in France, Spain and Italy and so seems particularly at home with the cooking from those areas. In the area I know something about -- southern France -- she is directly on the mark with authentic home recipes that real people living in real provincial France make, or remember their mothers' making.

This kind of a book -- rich in detail and bursting with recipes -- will be put aside by the casual recipe-book browser and probably by many buyers of cookbooks for retail stores, but it shouldn't be. The introductions to the recipes provide a subtle lesson in the history of European food -- not the classic cuisines of male chefs in fancy restaurants, but the home cooking of country people who knew not from supermarkets. Luard's writing is elegant in a sort of subdued British manner. But the recipes are often voluptuous and highly flavored.

I think this book is a treat that will have a lasting interest for cooks who are serious about home cooking.

"Southwest Tastes" by Ellen Brown (HP Books, 1987, $19.95): Ellen Brown, who was food editor of USA Today and now runs a high-style carryout in New York, produced this book, but it's based on the cooking of current chefs in the Southwest. Each chef is introduced in a brief biographical sketch with pictures, and the recipes are built around that.

Southwest cooking is the nearest the trend detectives can come to a trend, but the wave may be beginning to crest at the moment. In some ways this is the best of the recent Southwest books. It has a bit of everything: high glamour, many personalities, interesting recipes that are sometimes demanding but as easy on the cook as possible, and a lovely, flossy look.

One thing I particularly like is the suggestion in many of the recipes for how to substitute when a particular flavor isn't absolutely required. Real chefs in professional kitchens do it all the time, and it's unrealistic to think that if the fish market doesn't have red snapper that day the home cook should just skulk home and pout. FRIED CHICKEN (4 servings)

2 1/2 to 3 pounds chicken

1 cup milk

1 cup whipping cream

Vegetable oil for frying

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 teaspoons pepper

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus 2 tablespoons

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 egg

1/2 cup chicken broth

Rinse the chicken and cut into 10 pieces: drumsticks, thighs, wings and breasts, each cut into 2 pieces. Mix the milk and cream together in a bowl and soak the chicken pieces in the mixture for at least 2 hours at room temperature.

Pour the oil 1-inch deep into a Dutch oven or deep heavy skillet with a lid. Heat the oil to hot, but not smoking (375 degrees).

Remove the chicken pieces from the milk mixture and pat dry. Save the milk mixture. Mix the salt and pepper together and sprinkle half the mixture evenly over the chicken. Mix the remaining salt-pepper mixture with 1 1/4 cups flour and the paprika. Beat the egg with 1/2 cup of milk-cream mixture.

Dredge the chicken in the flour, shake off the excess and dip each piece in the egg mixture, coating thoroughly. Dredge again in the flour, and shake off the excess. Place the chicken pieces, skin side down, in the hot oil, cover the pan, and fry, allowing 12 to 13 minutes for dark meat pieces, 8 minutes for white meat, turning once halfway through the cooking time. The juices shuld run clear when the meat is pierced, and the chicken should be a dark butterscotch color. Drain the chicken on paper towels and keep warm in a low oven.

Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the oil from the pan. Add the 2 tablespoons flour, stir to mix thoroughly and to loosen any bits in the pan, and brown lightly. Stir in the remaining milk and cream mixture and the chicken broth, and bring to a simmer, stirring. Simmer for 3 to 5 minutes, correct the seasoning, and serve hot with the chicken.

"Nanny's Texas Table," by Larry Ross (Simon and Schuster, 1987, $18.95) CHICKEN BREASTS WITH RED PEPPERS AND BOK CHOY IN CREAM SAUCE (4 servings)

1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken breasts

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons chopped scallions

1 pound bok choy

1 cup chicken stock, preferably homemade

2 tablespoons butter

1 pound sweet red peppers, seeded and cut into 2-inch strips

2 tablespoons cre`me frai~che

Cut the chicken breasts into strips 3 inches long and 1/4 inch wide. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the chicken, salt, pepper and chopped scallions.

Cut the bok choy stalks into 2-inch pieces. If using large bok choy, peel the skin from the core. Cut the core diagonally into thin slices.

Heat the chicken stock and butter in a medium-sized pan. Add the chicken and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon. Strain the stock into a bowl through a fine-meshed sieve. Return the stock to the pan, add the red peppers, and cook over moderate heat for 2 minutes. Add the bok choy and cook until the leaves wilt, about 1 minute.

Remove the vegetables with a slotted spoon, add salt, pepper and cre`me frai~che, and reduce the liquid by half. Return the chicken and vegetables to the sauce. Cook briefly until the chicken and vegetables are heated through. Serve immediately.

"Ken Hom's East Meets West Cuisine," by Ken Hom (Simon and Schuster, 1987, $19.95) ORANGES MILANESE (MILAN) (2 servings)

This recipe is for two servings, one orange for each; however, the amount of syrup and the amount of candied peel from two oranges are enough for a serving of four oranges. Our advice is to go right ahead and use all the peel and make all the syrup. Store the extra peel, well dredged with sugar, in a glass in the refrigerator; the extra syrup is excellent as a sauce for ice cream or poured in the bottom of the ramekins when making an orange-flavored baked custard.

2 large, thick-skinned seedless oranges

Water

1 cup sugar

With a swivel peeler, cut 1-inch wide strips of zest (the orange rind without the white part) from the top to the bottom of the 2 oranges. With a sharp knife, cut the zest into 1/8-inch-wide strips approximately 2 inches in length.

Put the strips into a small saucepan large enough to hold the 2 oranges side by side. Add 1 cup of water, bring to a boil, and boil gently for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, thoroughly remove all the rest of the skin and the membrane from the outside surface of the oranges, slightly cutting away at the flesh of the oranges with a very sharp knife. Set the oranges aside on a plate.

With a slotted spoon, remove the cooked peel to a small bowl. Pour the liquid into a measuring cup and add enough water (if needed) to fill the cup to the 3/4-cup mark. Pour the liquid back into the saucepan and add the sugar. Boil for 7 to 10 minutes, or until the syrup begins to thicken. Add the orange peel to the syrup and boil 5 minutes more. Test the peel for softness and sweetness, and boil 2 or 3 minutes more -- the peel should be slightly translucent. Scoop out the peel with a slotted spoon into a fine-mesh sieve, drain, and spread out on a sheet of waxed paper, separating the pieces with a fork and your fingers.

Bring the syrup to a boil again and put the peeled oranges into the syrup with a slotted spoon. Keep turning them in the boiling syrup for no more than 2 minutes. They should glisten with syrup on the outside but remain uncooked within. With the slotted spoon, remove the oranges from the syrup and drain them as much as possible. Place each orange in the center of an individual shallow glass or china dessert dish.

Boil down the syrup for 2 or 3 minutes. Take the pan off the heat, let the foam diminish, and cool. Then spoon the syrup slowly over the oranges; if too thick, add enough hot water to thin. You be the judge of how much syrup you want in each dish. Pile 10 to 14 orange peel strips on top of each orange and add another spoonful of syrup on top of the strips. Cool to room temperature.

"Dolci:The Fabulous Desserts of Italy," by Virginie and George Elbert (Simon and Schuster, 1987, $17.95) FRESH TOMATO BREAD (Makes 2 medium-sized baguettes)

Fresh tomato juice is delicous and easy to prepare. You simply peel and quarter red-ripe garden tomatoes and then press them through a sieve or a food mill. When added to bread, the resulting loaves have the color of fired terra-cotta clay. Parsley and oregano add a freshness without overpowering the delicate tomato taste.

1/4 cup warm water

1 scant tablespoon active dry yeast

1 cup fresh tomato juice

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh Italian parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 egg yolk

3 to 3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour

1 egg white

1 teaspoon water

In a small container, combine water and yeast to soften yeast. In a medium mixing bowl, combine tomato juice, parsley, oregano, sugar, oil, salt, egg yolk, softened yeast mixture and 2 cups of the flour. Beat well.

To make a soft dough, gradually add remaining 1 to 1 1/2 cups flour. Turn out on a floured surface and knead until smooth. Place in a well-greased bowl, turning dough once to grease the top. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 45 to 60 minutes. Knead dough down in a bowl and divide in half. Roll each half to a long loaf, about 12 inches. Place loaves in well-greased baguette pans. Cover and let rise until almost doubled, about 30 minutes. Brush tops of loaves with a mixture of 1 egg white and 1 teaspoon water.

Slash tops of loaves down the center with a sharp knife. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes. Turn out on racks to cool.

"The Wooden Spoon Bread Book," by Marilyn M. Moore (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987, $19.95) CROQUESIGNOLES (Makes about 2 dozen doughnuts)

Croquesignole, pronounced "crook-sin-yawl," means doughtnut in Cajun French. These doughnuts have a wonderful cake texture, and if you have a sweet tooth they can be made sweeter by sprinkling them with confectioners' sugar or by glazing.

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

1 large egg

1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon dry yeast

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cloves

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

3/4 cup cane syrup

1/4 cup evaporated milk

3 cups all-purpose flour

Vegetable oil for deep-frying

FOR THE GLAZE:

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

2 teaspoons evaporated milk

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract In the large bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter, egg, baking powder, yeast, vanilla, salt, cloves and nutmeg; set on medium speed a few seconds until well blended, pushing sides down with a rubber spatula. Add the syrup and milk; beat about 2 minutes, pushing sides down as needed. Add 2 1/4 cups of the flour, half at a time, beating a few seconds on low speed until all the flour is mixed in; then increase speed to high and beat about 1 minute more.

Spoon the dough onto a flat surface floured with 1/2 cup flour. Flour your hands and knead dough fairly gently for about 1 minute. Add the remaining 1/4 cup flour and knead about 1 minute more. Lightly flour board again, if necessary, then roll dough into a rectangular shape about 3/8-inch thick. Cut into rectangles 2-by-2 1/2-inches. Score each rectangle twice, making each cut about 1 inch long.

Heat 1-inch of oil in a deep skillet or deep-fryer to 375 degrees. Carefully slide a single layer of the dough rectangles into the hot oil and fry until dark golden brown on both sides and cooked in the centers, about 4 minutes, turning at least once with a spatula. Do not crowd. (Adjust heat to maintain oil's temperature as close to 375 degrees as possible.) Drain on paper towels. Note: If you prefer a crispier doughnut, fry at 350 degrees for about 4 minutes; to get a cookie effect, fry at 300 degrees for about 13 minutes.

To make glaze, combine ingredients and spread on doughnuts while they are still hot. Or, if desired, just sprinkle with confectioners' sugar.

Let sit, uncovered, about 1 hour before serving. Store, covered, at room temperature for the first 2 days, then refrigerate.

"The Prudhomme Family Cookbook," by the eleven Prudhomme brothers and sisters and Paul Prudhomme (Morrow, 1987, $19.95) GARLIC SHRIMP (4 servings)

4 garlic cloves

4 small dried chiles or one fresh green chile, seeded

1 pound raw shrimp (frozen ones should be defrosted and drained first)

1/2 cup olive oil

Salt

You will need, if you have them, four small shallow earthenware dishes. If not, a shallow gratin dish will do. Peel and slice the garlic. Chop the chiles. Peel the raw shrimps. Divide all three ingredients between 4 individual flat earthenware dishes or cocotte dishes. Divide the olive oil equally among the dishes. Sprinkle with salt. Put the dishes onto the heat if they are flame-proof, or under a very hot broiler, until they bubble fiercely. Remove immediately -- the shrimps toughen and lose their delicacy if overcooked.

Serve very hot with bread to sop up the juices.

"The Old World Kitchen," by Elisabeth Luard (Bantam, 1987, $22.50) PORK FAJITAS (8 servings)

2 1/2 pounds pork tenderloin

1/4 cup mole paste (available in Latin American groceries)

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1/4 teaspoon crushed black peppercorns

1 tablespoon water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

FOR SERVING:

16 corn tortillas

1 lemon, cut into wedges

1 cup shredded iceberg lettuce

1 tomato, seeded and diced

1/2 cup chopped onion

Guacamole (optional)

Sour cream (optional)

Trim the tenderloins of excess fat and silver skin. Mix the remaining ingredients and marinate the tenderloins, covered with plastic wrap, in the refrigerator overnight.

Light a charcoal or gas grill, and grill the tenderloins until done, about 15 minutes, turning them once or twice during the grilling period. Allow them to rest for 10 minutes before slicing.

To serve, heat the tortillas, wrapped in aluminum foil, in a 300-degree oven. Place sliced pork down the center of each tortilla, and add the remaining garnishes to suit personal taste.

Note: The pork can also be cooked in a 450-degree oven for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the size. Two or 3 tenderloins will take only 15 minutes.

Recipe by Josephine Castillo, Houston, from "Southwest Tastes," by Ellen Brown (HP Books, 1987, $19.95) BAKED RED SNAPPER WITH SHRIMP AND OYSTER DRESSING (4 to 6 servings)

2 red snappers (2 1/2 to 3 pounds each)

5 slices bread

2-pound 3-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, not packed with tomato paste

2 medium onions, finely chopped

2 large stalks celery, finely chopped

1 small green bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely minced

4 tablespoons softened butter

1 large egg

Salt to taste, if desired

1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 pound shrimp, peeled, deveined, and coarsely chopped

18 oysters, coarsely chopped

1 to 2 cups water, as needed

3 bay leaves

Juice of 1 lemon

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Extra 1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined (optional)

The snappers should be split and eviscerated, but not cut completely through. Heads may be cut off, but the final result looks better, and the juices stay in the fish more satifactorily, when heads are intact. The fish may be boned, making them easier to serve, but this results in some wasted meat, and the fish will be a little less firm and flavorful. It is possible for the fish man to split the fish, leaving the bones in. Rinse and dry thoroughly.

Toast the bread, and when it has cooled slightly, crumble it to coarse crumbs, preferably in a blender or a food processor.

Drain the tomatoes, reserving the juice. There should be about 3 cups juice. Chop or coarsely break up the tomatoes and add to the bread crumbs. Stir in the onions, celery, green pepper and garlic. Blend in the softened butter and egg. Season to taste with salt and cayenne. Stir in the chopped shrimp and oysters.

Spoon filling into the fish cavities, using about 2/3 in all between the two fish. Sew the fish closed with heavy kitchen thread. If you have a pan large enough to allow both fish to lay flat with a little space between them, use it to bake the fish together. Otherwise use two open baking pans. (Oval, enameled cast-iron baking pans are expecially nice for this because the fish can be brought to the table in them.) Arrange the fish in the pan and spoon the remaining stuffing around it. Pour in the reserved tomato liquid, dividing it in half if you use two baking dishes. Add 1 cup water to each pan, or 1 1/2 cups if baking both fish in the same pan. Add bay leaves, lemon juice, and a little salt and pepper. Baste the fish with liquid. If you like, extra whole shrimp can be added to the pan.

Place in a 350-degree oven and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until fish flakes when tested with a fork. Baste several times during baking and add a little more water to the pan if sauce thickens too much.

Remove the thread and cut the fish into serving portions; spoon sauce over each. Serve with steamed rice.

"Craig Claiborne's Southern Cooking," by Craig Claiborne (Times Books, 1987, $19.95) LAST WORD IN NUTMEG MUFFINS (12 muffins)

Fragrant, creamy-crumbled nutmeg muffins are the best of their kind, but you must grate one and a half whole little nutmegs to make these perfect creations. Although whole nutmegs feel like rocks, they are rather soft and easy to grate. The flavor of freshly grated nutmeg is incomparable. These muffins taste good with fruit, or butter, or all by themselves.

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 1/2 whole nutmegs, grated

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg

3/4 cup whipping cream

3/4 cup milk

5 tablespoons butter, melted

Stir together with a fork the flour, sugar, baking powder, nutmeg and salt in a medium-size bowl, thoroughly combining the ingredients. Beat the egg well in a small bowl, then stir in the cream, milk and butter and blend well. Add the cream mixture to the flour mixture and stir only until there are no streaks of flour. Do not overmix.

Spoon batter 2/3 full into each muffin tin. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the rounded tops are lightly golden. Remove muffins from the pan, and serve warm. Or cool on a rack and store or freeze for later use; warm before serving.

"The Breakfast Book," by Marion Cunningham (Knopf, 1987, $17.95)