There's something about the period from mid-December through the first week in January that can be so confusing as to induce a really unpleasant paralysis. Everybody in this age of psycho-chic knows that heightened expectations -- the disjunctions between fantasy and reality -- are the culprit. The family is supposed to gather happily 'round the fire, etc., but instead they all moan and carp, fight over the relative straightness of the Christmas tree, miss trains, work at intensely crossed purposes.

But it could be that it's all much simpler than that. It could be that it's not expectations, it's the malls. Last time I was in a mall parking lot, somebody tried to break into my car -- with me still in it. And it wasn't even December.

And maybe it's not the disjunction between fantasy and reality, but the guests. As in that IKEA television ad, the guests come, distorted to a larger-than-life toothiness as they appear at the front door, and these guests want food or they'll eat the furniture.

So in order to get a handle on this month, we're going to talk about cookbooks -- cookbooks to give as gifts and cookbooks to buy for yourself so that you'll be able to entertain more happily.

First, the gifts.

In any group of cookbooks, there will be some you want to read, some you want to look at, and some you want to cook from. Especially at this time of year there will also be a category of books that are a little of everything, or at least intend to be. While these efforts to be everything to everybody (and therefore sell a zillion copies) are often not successful, when they are they tend to be ideal gifts, since they are books that one might hesitate to buy for oneself.

Books in the look-at or read category seem to be good bets for the same reason. That the person you're giving them to has an interest in food is all you need to be sure of when you're picking them out. When you're buying for a young person (or an older one, as far as that goes) who is incubating an interest in serious cooking, a real cook-from-it book is more to the point.

Here is a list of books, broken down by category, that would make wonderful gifts. Some are of recent issue, and some have been around for a while.

Books especially to look at:

"The Natural Cuisine of Georges Blanc," by Georges Blanc; Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1987, $45: This is among the two or three most beautifully photographed food books I've ever seen. Photographer Christopher Baker is able to turn a row of lettuces into art. With his camera Baker has caught hold of those times when the light falls just right on a geranium-bedecked wall of stucco or an old basket full of fresh, young green beans.

Although you will get ideas from this book about the best in current French cuisine and about presentation (nearly all the food is presented on white plates, for example), it's not primarily a book to cook from. Blanc is chef at one of the best-known and most-revered restaurants in France, La Me`re Blanc in Burgundy. The recipes, therefore, tend to be both money- and labor-intensive.

But for the food-as-art lover or for the past or future traveler in France, this is as evocative a production as you're likely to run into.

"Japan: The Beauty of Food," photographs by Reinhart Wolf, text by Angela Terzani, Rizzoli International Publications, 1987, $50: More stylized, more dramatic, and less comfy than the French picture books, this German-produced volume contains no recipes, only startlingly beautiful photographs set squarely on black pages. Sparse bits of text, set in black type on gray squares that are themselves laid on a black page, oppose the photographs. The text is not wasted on blah-blah; it's a fascinating cultural history. Looking at this book and reflecting on its beauty and its serenity, it seems that there was only one way to produce an art book on Japanese food, and this was the way.

Cookbooks in the bit-of-everything category:

"A Taste of Provence" by Leslie Forbes; Little, Brown, 1987, $19.95: Leslie Forbes both illustrates and writes her books, and this one is a little gem about the food and cooking of specific villages in one particular corner of southern France, the corner called Provence.

Although the format of the book -- Forbes writes out the recipes and text in her own calligrapher's hand -- makes it difficult to actually cook from and a bit difficult for fuzzy eyes even to read, Forbes has located the heart of this corner of the world. It's in the olive oil and the garlic, in the multicolored peppers, the figs and goat cheeses. Forbes has nosed around in the tiny villages and found the folks who really know how to cook in the old style with these indigenous ingredients. For cooks who know this part of the world or who wish they did, "A Taste of Provence" will satisfy multiple longings. She's got it just right.

"A Proper Tea" by Joanna Isles, St. Martin's Press, 1987, $13.95: This is one in a string of tea books, and it's a nice one. It's very pretty to begin with, and is an interesting explication of the English state of mind called "tea." The beginning of the book solves for us all those vexing social problems about which tea you can properly accompany with lemon and which not.

Isles has provided tea scenarios for us as well. Thus the chapters are dedicated to "a picnic tea," and "nursery tea," "tea in the garden," and so forth. Recipes for accompanying little cakes and sandwiches are included with each chapter. The recipes, written in British fashion, will require a scale.

"Pasta Classica" by Julia della Croce, Chronicle Books, 1987, $25: Other books -- many other books -- have been written about pasta, but this one is a wonderful combination of lore, information, recipes and graphics. Della Croce has a warm, enveloping style that harmonizes perfectly with the idea of pasta. Like the authors of many other good cookbooks, della Croce developed her love of food by hanging around her mother's kitchen. And in her mother's kitchen, pasta was revered.

Many of the attractive graphics -- photographs and illustrations -- are also instructional. Rows of individual pieces of pasta, for example, come together to look a bit like abstract art. Then you realize that you can learn their names, and how to use them, by studying the pictures.

Books for reading (and also to cook from):

"Simple Cooking" by John Thorne, Viking, 1987, $20: The only reason "Simple Cooking" isn't in the little-bit-of-everything category is that it's a book with only text. Thorne needs no cute little drawings or pretty photographs to embellish his ideas. His ideas, written in straight-from-the-guts prose, include recipes, tidbits of opinion, scenes from his past, and essays that reveal a serious, slightly desperate but very appealing mind.

Too many folks who are willing to reveal themselves, as Thorne does, turn out to have very little to reveal. Reading "Simple Cooking" from cover to cover, however, you could very nearly learn how to cook, and learn a lot as well about the intersection where people meet food. If you have a loved one who is very fond of both thinking and cooking, you couldn't make a better choice.

"Honey from a Weed" by Patience Gray, Harper and Row, 1987, $25: Putting Patience Gray's work in a listing of cookbooks seems a bit like putting Plato among the Agatha Christies. "Honey from a Weed" is a work of scholarship and also a cookbook. It concentrates on a few places around the Mediterranean where Gray has lived with a man she calls "the Sculptor."

Forget all the travelogue reminiscences you've ever read when you approach this book. A sample bit: "I am not alone in my conviction that one should eat less meat. By chance I have just opened, while writing this, the 'Metamorphoses' of Ovid, to find in Book XV Pythagoras's address to the inhabitants of Crotone ... This address is the most moving conjuration in favor of vegetarianism ever written. All the same I have to admit that from time to time I have a certain hankering for beef!"

Books for cooking:

"The Best of Gourmet," Volumes I and II, Random House, 1986 and 1987, $24.95 and "Gourmet's Best Desserts," Random House, 1987, $29.95: Gourmet magazine has changed in the last couple of years, from a hopelessly elitist rag into something much more useful. That the recipes have retained their savor and their class is testament to the editors' intelligent approach to cooking. Recipes in these books have been taken from the magazine. They are books that the moderately to very active cook will always find interesting. Many of the recipes take minutes to prepare, menus are provided, and the recipes always work.

"The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking" by Yamuna Devi, E.P. Dutton, 1987, $29.95: Reviewed earlier this fall, this a recipe book of great scholarship and usefulness. Cooks who are vegetarian, have an interest in Indian food, or who only want to eat less meat will find hundreds of interesting recipes here, and for the most part they aren't difficult, either.

"The Breakfast Book" by Marion Cunningham, Knopf, 1987, $17.95: Here is a woman who is unafraid to say what she thinks, even if what she thinks involves cream, sugar and butter. These are delicious recipes for muffins, waffles, omelets and even meats and fish, all suitable for breakfast or brunch. The recipes are straightforward and they work. This is a lovely little book -- very intimate.

"New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant" by Moosewook Collective, Ten Speed Press, 1987, $12.95: The Moosewood books are vegetarian cookbooks par excellence, and this new one will undoubtedly take its place in the hearts of younger cooks. Every college kid I know -- college kid who cooks -- uses the Moosewood books. Some of the recipes are a little bean sprouty for those with more classical palates, but there are plenty of other types as well.

Anything by Marcella Hazan: Many people think Hazan is the best translator of Italian food we have. Her books are classics -- authoritative, well-written and useful to the beginning cook as well as to the more experienced. Young people, college age and just above, seem particularly receptive to Hazan's ideas.

Finally, here are some books you might want to buy for yourself if you're planning to do some entertaining this winter:

"The Best of Gourmet," volumes I and II, listed previously: These books will not give you guidance about how to set a table or how many bottles of wine you'll need for a dozen people, but they will give you recipes that work and that are great for entertaining. There are 24 menus in each book, and recipes and wine suggestions for each menu. It's sometimes too much to recreate any given menu in its entirety, but not by any means impossible.

"Entertaining," by Martha Stewart; Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. 1982, $35: On the other hand, there's Martha Stewart. Although Stewart is on the receiving end of much envious sniping, since both she and all her stuff appear to be so very nearly perfect, there are presentation ideas galore in her books. "Entertaining" was the first of the glossy, idea-intensive entertaining books, and it remains the best. Her recipes are often a little off, and by now they've been reproduced by every caterer and fancy carryout in town, but there is a vast amount of information to be mined, about how to make things look beautiful, about how to be a host, about how to set up a bar, in this book.

"The Breakfast Book" by Marion Cunningham, cited previously: Here are all the recipes you'll ever need if you like to give brunches or intimate breakfasts. New Year's morning with nutmeg muffins, for example.

"Roger Verge''s Entertaining in the French Style" by Roger Verge'; Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1986, $50: If you have $50 to spend on yourself and you like to give well organized, very beautiful dinner parties, Roger Verge' might very well have something to say to you. The recipes are sometimes difficult to execute but worth the effort. What you'll learn about combinations of flavors and presentation is at least of equal importance.

"Good Friends, Great Dinners" by Susan Costner, Crown Publishers, 1987, $22.50: This new book focuses on casual entertaining, but you could certainly produce a formal dinner party using what you've learned here. It's not hamburgers Costner is talking about, but sea bass provenc al en papillote and anjou pears in late-harvest riesling. Menus are divided by seasons, with eight given for each, and the recipes are within the reach of average cooks.

MINESTRA CON DITALINI E ZUCCA GIALLASTART NOTE cqEND NOTE (Little Thimble Pasta with Yellow Squash Soup) (6 servings)

3 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped salt pork

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

1 large garlic clove, bruised

2 tablespoons olive oil

3/4 pound new red potatoes, unpeeled and diced into small pieces

3/4 pound yellow (summer) squash, diced into small pieces

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 cups water

1/4 cup ditalini ("little thimble") or tubettini ("little tubes")

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh tarragon, or 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley

Fresh grated parmigiano cheese at table

In a large saucepan, heat the salt pork, onion and garlic in the oil until they are soft. Stir to prevent the salt pork from sticking. Add the potatoes, cover, and cook 10 minutes at low heat, until the potatoes sweat, stirring occasionally as they cook to prevent sticking. Add the squash, salt and pepper and stir in the water. Cover, bring to a boil, and add the pasta. Simmer 12 to 15 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente. Add the tarragon or parsley 5 minutes after the pasta. Remove the garlic clove and check for seasoning. Serve with parmigiano.

Note: This soup is remarkably tasty, even though there is no meat-broth base. The fresh flavor of the squash is more pronounced when it is cooked in water. For an even tastier dish, make the soup a day ahead, up the point where you add the pasta. The following day, reheat and add the pasta and herb to finish the soup.

From "Pasta Classica," by Julia della Croce, (Chronicle Books, 1987, $25) SPICY LAMB STEW WITH SWEET POTATO ROSETTES (6 servings)

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 cups finely chopped onion

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger

1 1/2 tablespoons ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 cups chicken stock or canned chicken broth

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

Two 3-inch fresh green hot chilies, seeded and minced (wear rubber gloves)

2 cups chopped, drained, canned Italian plum tomatoes

1 pound spinach, coarse stems discarded, washed well and drained

3 cups cauliflower flowerets

3 large sweet potatoes (about 2 1/2 pounds)

1 russet (baking) potato

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

In a 3-quart flameproof baking dish heat the oil over moderately high heat until it is hot but not smoking and in it brown the lamb, patted dry, in batches, transferring it with a slotted spoon as it is browned to a bowl. In the fat remaining, cook the onion over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until it is softened; add garlic and fresh ginger, and cook mixture, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes. Add the cumin, coriander and flour and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add the stock combined with 1 cup heated water, whisking, and simmer mixture for 5 minutes. Add the lime juice, chilies, tomatoes, lamb and any juices that have accumulated in the bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste and simmer the mixture, covered, skimming it occasionally, for 1 1/2 hours, or until the lamb is tender.

While the mixture is simmering, in a large, covered saucepan steam the spinach in the water clinging to the leaves over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, for 2 to 3 minutes or until it is just wilted. Drain the spinach in a colander, refresh it under cold water, and squeeze it dry in a kitchen towel. Add the cauliflower to the lamb mixture, simmer the mixture for 5 minutes, and stir in the spinach. The stew may be prepared up to that point, cooled to room temperature, and kept covered well and frozen for up to 2 weeks. Let the stew thaw, covered, in the refrigerator before continuing with the recipe.

Bake the potatoes in a 425-degree oven, pricking them several times with a fork after 30 minutes, for 1 hour, or until they are very tender. Let them stand until they are cool enough to be handled. Peel the potatoes, force them through a food mill fitted with the medium disk set over a bowl, and stir in the butter and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the mixture to a pastry bag fitted with a large decorative tip and pipe it into 2-inch rosettes around the edge of the baking dish. The stew may be prepared up to this point, cooled to room temperature, and kept covered and chilled for up to 3 days. Bake the stew in a 400-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, or until it is heated through and the rosettes are browned lightly.

From "The Best of Gourmet, volume II," (Random House, 1987, $24.95) NORTH DAKOTA LEMON MERINGUE PIE (Makes one 9-inch pie)

Note the folding of this pie dough. First it is flattened into a round, spread with butter, folded in half, and folded again to form a pie-shaped wedge. The wedge is reformed into a ball and rolled out to line the pie plate. This special handling provides an easy method of obtaining a dough with many layers -- an extremely flaky "mock puff pastry" crust.

FOR THE SHELL:

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 stick ( 1/4 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits, plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

3 tablespoons cold lard, cut into bits

3 tablespoons ice water

FOR THE FILLING:

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons grated lemon rind

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 egg yolks

1 1/2 cups boiling water

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

FOR THE MERINGUE:

3 egg whites at room temperature

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup sugar

In a bowl, combine the flour and salt. Add the cold butter and the lard and blend the mixture until it resembles coarse meal. Add the ice water, toss the mixture until it is incorporated and form the dough into a ball. Flatten the ball into a 6-inch round on a floured surface and spread it with the softened butter. Fold the dough in half and fold the halved dough again to form a pie-shaped wedge. Press the edges together and reform the dough into a ball. Flatten the ball slightly and roll it into a round 1/8-inch thick on the floured surface. Fit the dough into the pie plate and crimp the edge decoratively. Prick the shell lightly with a fork and bake it in the lower third of the oven at 400-degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, or until it is puffed lightly and golden. Let the shell cool in the pan on a rack.

In a heavy stainless steel saucepan combine well the sugar, cornstarch, lemon juice, lemon rind and salt. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the boiling water in a stream and add the butter. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly, and simmer it, stirring, for 3 minutes, or until it is thickened, glossy and translucent. Remove the pan from the heat and beat the mixture for 1 minute. Pour the filling into the shell, smoothing the top. Let the filling cool to room temperature. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl with a mixer, beat the egg whites with the vanilla, cream of tartar and the salt until they hold soft peaks; add the sugar, a little at a time, beating, and continue to beat the meringue until it holds stiff peaks. Spoon the meringue over the filling, covering the filling and the crust completely and drawing the meringue up into peaks over the surface of the pie. Bake the pie in the middle of the 350-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the meringue is golden. Let the pie cool on a rack.

Variation: For an Orange Meringue Pie, reduce the lemon juice in the filling to 1 tablespoon, add 1/3 cup fresh orange juice, and substitute 2 tablespoons grated orange rind for the lemon rind.

From "Gourmet's Best Desserts," (Random House, 1987, $24.95) AMERICAN STUFFED CABBAGE

(6 servings)

Drawing from her American heritage, Laura Branca created this vegetarian version of a classic favorite rich with nuts, aromatic mint and tangy lemon.

2 cups uncooked brown rice

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon tomato paste

3 1/2 cups water

1 large green cabbage

1 cup walnuts, finely chopped

1 cup almonds, finely chopped

1/4 cup chopped fresh spearmint, (1 tablespoon dried)

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/3 cup olive oil

3 garlic cloves, pressed or minced

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

3 cups canned tomatoes

Salt and black pepper to taste

Sour cream for serving

Chopped fresh parsley for serving

Saute' the rice in a tablespoon of olive oil, stirring continuously, for 3 to 4 minutes. The rice will begin to smell "nutty," somewhat reminiscent of popcorn. Add the bay leaves, salt, tomato paste and water and stir until the tomato paste is dissolved. Cover and cook until tender.

Immerse the cored head of cabbage in boiling water. After several minutes, as each leaf begins to separate from the head, gently but nimbly pull it completely off the cabbage and set aside to cool. Continue until there are 12 good leaves to stuff.

Combine the nuts, mint, and parsley in a mixing bowl. When the rice is ready, remove the bay leaves and add the rice to the nuts. Mix in 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil, the garlic, and half the lemon juice.

Make a thin sauce by crushing the tomatoes in their juice and then mixing in the salt and pepper, the remaining lemon juice and olive oil. Thin the sauce with water if necessary. Ladle some of the sauce into a large skillet or soup pot.

Put 1/3 to 1/2 cup of the rice-nut filling on the thick end of each cabbage leaf. Fold the sides over the mixture and then roll up toward the thin edge of the leaf. Arrange the cabbage rolls on top of the sauce, seam side down. Pour the rest of the sauce over the rolls, cover, and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes. Test the cabbage for tenderness by piercing with a fork.

Serve with steamed, fresh green beans and julienned carrots. Top with a dollop of sour cream and more chopped parsley if desired.

From "New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant" DOWN-HOME GREENS WITH CORNMEAL DUMPLINGS (6 servings)

4 pounds turnip greens, collard greens, mustard greens, or kale with coarse stems removed, washed and coarsely chopped

1 pound pork shoulder butt (Have the butcher cut the meat to the bone in several places)

FOR THE DUMPLINGS:

3/4 cup cornmeal

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup finely chopped scallions

1/2 cup grated monterey jack cheese

1 large egg, beaten

Hot pepper, vinegar or hot pepper sauce for serving

In a large, noncorrodible casserole, combine the greens with just enough water to cover; then add the pork butt. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer, partially covered, for 25 to 30 minutes or until greens are soft. Uncover and bring to a boil to reduce the liquid by one-third.

Prepare the dumplings in a medium-size mixing bowl. Combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, scallions and cheese. Make a well in the center and add the beaten egg and 1/2 cup of broth from the cooked greens. Mix just enough to blend.

Drop heaping tablespoons of the batter onto the simmering greens. Keep the dumplings several inches apart. Cover and continue simmering over moderate heat for 10 to 12 minutes. Uncover and cook for 3 to 5 minutes more or until the dumplings are dry on the top.

Serve with a little hot pepper, vinegar or hot pepper sauce.

From "Good Friends, Great Dinners," by Susan Costner, (Crown Publishers, 1987, $22.50)