The cooking of South and Latin America continues to grow in importance along with our Hispanic population. But, although many lump South America and other Latin American countries together with Mexico, there are innumerable individual differences and the actual foods don't always fit the expected stereotypes. Even within Mexico, it seems, there are endless variations.

Mexican maven Diana Kennedy's approach, in her revised "Mexican Regional Cooking" (Harper Perennial, $14.95), continues to be one of total -- one might even say austere -- authenticity. Ingredients and techniques are more than explained, they are proscribed and enunciated. Kennedy, worried that modernization threatens the regional character of Mexican cooking, is actively seeking to keep the traditions alive. She entertains no shortcuts, no substitutions.

"Don't just open the book for the first time as you light the stove, read the appendices ... " she warns. For this is "the haute cuisine of Mexico and as much time and trouble should go into its preparation as into that of any intricate French dish." This is a woman of strong opinions and considerable precision; perhaps her books are not for the faint of heart, but there are rewards for meeting her standards. Try her snappy Lentil Soup Quere'taro Style, for instance.

In "South America -- Foods and Feasts From the New World" by Barbara Karoff (Aris Books, $18.95), a delightful surprise was the Brazilian Chicken in Fruit Sauce with Coconut Rice.

Karoff's book, carefully divided by country, sets the stage with a bit of history, explaining the diverse influences of the native Indians and the subsequent waves of European and African cultures. We learn that freeze-dried potatoes, by the way, were an ancient contribution, with examples found in grave sites that predate the Incas.

She's not a purist. Her recipes are adapted to the North American palate not only because finding ingredients can be difficult but also because many tastes are acquired ones.

BRAZILIAN CHICKEN IN FRUIT SAUCE (4 servings)

Brazilians serve this dish with coconut rice, but it is good with wild rice too. Although the dates and prunes are an unusually successful combination, don't hesitate to substitute or add other dried fruit and don't overlook Vinho d'alho as a marinade for duck, turkey, and pork as well.

FOR THE MARINADE:

2 cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1/4 cup finely chopped celery

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1/4 cup minced parsley

1/4 cup grated carrot

1 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup white wine vinegar

1 chicken (3 1/2 to 4 pounds), cut into serving pieces or an equal quantity of chicken pieces

TO FINISH:

2 tablespoons butter

1/3 cup tomato sauce

1/2 cup orange juice

1 teaspoon grated orange peel

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon grated lemon peel

1/2 cup pitted dried prunes

1/2 cup pitted dates

1/4 cup heavy cream

To make the marinade, mash the garlic with the salt and pepper until it forms a smooth paste. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.

Marinate the chicken pieces overnight or for at least 6 hours. Remove the chicken and reserve the marinade.

Brown the chicken on all sides in the butter. Gradually add the marinade. Then add the tomato sauce, orange juice, orange peel, lemon juice, lemon peel, the prunes, and the dates. Cover and simmer gently until the chicken is very tender, about 30 minutes. Add more orange juice if necessary.

When the chicken is done, remove it from the sauce, set it aside, and keep warm. Add the cream to the sauce and stir it quickly for several minutes to prevent its curdling. Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve at once.

Per serving: 944 calories, 126 gm protein, 40 gm carbohydrates, 26 gm fat, 11 gm saturated fat, 373 mg cholesterol, 793 mg sodium.

From "South America -- Foods and Feasts From the New World" by Barbara Karoff (Aris Books, $18.95) RICE WITH COCONUT MILK (6 servings)

In Brazil, where rice is served at almost every meal, it is frequently cooked with coconut milk for which it has a strong affinity. Along the tropical coasts of Colombia and Venezuela, raisins are often added.

2 cups unsweetened coconut milk

1 cup raisins (optional)

1 onion, finely minced

2 tablespoons safflower oil

2 cups short-grained rice

2 cups chicken stock

Salt to taste

Combine the coconut milk and the raisins and set aside.

Saute' the onion in the oil until it is soft. Add the rice and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir and take care that the rice does not brown. Add the coconut milk, raisins, stock, and salt. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer over very low heat until the rice is tender and dry. 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and allow to stand, covered, for about 15 minutes or up to 30 minutes. Stir lightly with a fork just before serving.

Per serving: 383 calories, 9 gm protein, 58 gm carbohydrates, 13 gm fat, 6 gm saturated fat, 11 mg cholesterol, 304 mg sodium.

From "South America -- Foods and Feasts From the New World" by Barbara Karoff (Aris Books, $18.95)

Preserves & Condiments "Perfect Preserves" by Nora Carey with photographs by Mike Hales (Stewart, Tabor & Chang, $35) is a straightforward book that focuses on matter-of-fact instructions. Everything is clearly explained, including, in many cases, why things are done as they are. Written by an American who lived and studied in France and England, the book and its recipes suit both sides of the Atlantic. The recipe for the delicious Simply Good Applesauce was a snap and leads to the unusual Applesauce Fruitcake.

"Condiments (Chutneys, Relishes and Table Sauces)" by Jay Solomon (Crossing Press, $8.95) is a little paperback with some truly big flavors. Solomon is passionate about salsa, raitas, relishes, mustards -- the whole range of tasty accompaniments. He advocates using these fresh, make-ahead accents in soups, on salads or vegetables, on barbecue or roasts, or as a zesty addition to poultry, seafoods or pork. Each chapter features a short introduction followed by the condiment recipes and additional recipes utilizing these sauces.

Absolutely wonderful and very surprising was the unusual Curried Sweet Potato Salad with Rhubarb Chutney.

CURRIED SWEET POTATO SALAD (8 servings)

4 large, unpeeled sweet potatoes, scrubbed and coarsely chopped

10 to 12 broccoli florets

1 1/2 cups minced celery

1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

1/2 cup dried currants or raisins

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 cup Rhubarb Chutney (recipe below)

1 1/2 tablespoons curry powder

2 teaspoons minced fresh parsley

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon red hot sauce

Place potatoes in boiling water to cover and cook for about 15 minutes, or until potatoes are easily pierced by a fork, but not mushy. Drain and chill under cold running water.

Blanch broccoli in boiling water to cover for 3 to 4 minutes. Drain and chill under cold running water.

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl and toss thoroughly. Chill for at least 1 hour before serving.

Per serving: 264 calories, 3 gm protein, 33 gm carbohydrates, 15 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 14 mg cholesterol, 268 mg sodium.

RHUBARB CHUTNEY (Makes about 3 cups)

1 1/4 pounds rhubarb, diced

1 medium-size onion, peeled and diced

1 apple, diced (do not peel)

1 1/2 cups red wine vinegar

3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger root

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

Combine all of the ingredients in a large saucepan and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 25 to 30 minutes, until the mixture has a jam-like consistency.

Allow the chutney to cool to room temperature; then refrigerate.

Per 1/2-cup serving: 234 calories, .8 gm protein, 61 gm carbohydrates, .2 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 98 mg sodium.

From "Condiments (Chutneys, Relishes and Table Sauces)" by Jay Solomon (Crossing Press, $8.95)

Seafood A book that offered comprehensive information about all sorts of seafood would be welcome indeed and here are two that come close to meeting the challenge.

"Fish: The Basics" by Shirley King (Simon & Schuster, $24.95) is organized almost like a textbook with the first part giving hard information on seafood and health concerns, the buying and storing of all sorts of fish and shellfish, and a chapter on what amounts to comparative anatomy that reveals how to gut, skin, and filet different types of fish.

The second part deals with methods of cooking seafood and the actual recipes, which are characterized as basic examples with alternative seafood given for each. In the third part, King, who also wrote "Saucing the Fish" (Simon & Schuster, 1986), delivers profiles of all the common fish and shellfish, with illustrations and summaries of the most appropriate ways to prepare them.

There's lots of good information here, but there's also a lot of page turning involved in finding it and the recipes tested seemed bland and in need of spicing up. Nevertheless, if you digested everything in the book, you'd be a seafood guru.

HP Books, like Chronicle Books, seems to have a knack for producing fetching, accessible small cookbooks that look good and work well. In "A Gourmet's Guide to Shellfish" by Mary Cadogan (HP Books, $9.95), the graphics are striking, the photographs sensational and the recipes, each of which is contained on a single page, are very good.

General information up front covers the kinds of shellfish alphabetically, followed by the recipes, which manage to be contemporary in spirit without giving off trendoid sparks.

SHRIMP RISOTTO (4 servings)

1 pound shrimp

1 bay leaf

Few celery leaves

6 peppercorns

Salt, to taste

Few saffron threads

6 tablespoons butter

1 onion, chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

2 cups Italian Arborio rice

1 1/4 cups dry white wine

2 zucchini, cut into thin strips

6 ounces oyster mushrooms, cut into pieces

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Rinse and peel shrimp; set aside. Rinse shells, then put them in a saucepan with the bay leaf, celery leaves, peppercorns, salt, saffron and 3 3/4 cups water. Bring to a boil, then simmer 20 minutes. Strain and reserve stock.

In a heavy large saucepan or skillet, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter, add onion and garlic and cook about 5 minutes, until softened but not colored. Add rice and stir to coat all the grains with butter. Add 1/3 of the reserved stock and bring to a boil, then simmer, uncovered, until the stock is absorbed. Stirring, gradually add more stock and the wine until it has all been absorbed and the rice is cooked; this will take about 20 minutes.

In a separate pan, melt remaining butter, add shrimp, zucchini and mushrooms and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Fold into rice, with parsley and half the cheese; taste and add salt, if needed.

Serve piping hot, sprinkled with remaining cheese.

Per serving: 719 calories, 34 gm protein, 83 gm carbohydrates, 22 gm fat, 12 gm saturated fat, 224 mg cholesterol, 511 mg sodium.

From "A Gourmet's Guide to Shellfish" by Mary Cadogan, photography by David Gill (HP Books, $9.95)