THE beginning of the year is probably the best time to buy a new cookbook - not because some prices have been reduced, but because the selection is so complete.
Since many cookbooks are expensive, it makes good sense to take time in choosing one for your own use. Make sure you will find the recipes usable, see that you'll be able to learn some new methods or techniques, and check that the recipes are clear and easy to read and that there's a good index. Here are some books to consider:
In Madeleine's Kitchen, by Madeleine Kamman (Atheneum, $19.95 until January, then $22.95). Challenging, charismatic, and sometimes controversial, this author combines French cooking, food chemistry, and her own contemporary approach in classes and in a new restaurant at Glen, N.H.
The central focus of Ms. Kamman's technique is improvisation. The freedom of the cook is stressed in this book, which the author says is for all cooks - home cooks, fancy cooks, professionals, or beginners.
Along with excellent charts, diagrams, and some old-fashioned recipes, the book includes opinions on food fashions such as balsamic vinegar, red peppers, and Chinese influences.
Ms. Kamman offers simplified methods of making comfit and modern sauces to go with preserved meats and directions on how to taste a sauce as well as make it. She tells how to cook lobster in a microwave oven.
Food for Friends, by Barbara Kafka (Harper & Row, $19.95). Barbara Kafka is a sophisticated New Yorker, but here is the only new cookbook with directions and recipes for old-fashioned roasts - roast beef, roast chicken, roast leg of lamb or pork, and roast turkey with sauerkraut stuffing.
The recipes here show the originality and vitality of this much-sought-after food consultant.
Speedy cooking and good company are important to Ms. Kafka, but she also has a touch of country about her when she talks about her garden in Vermont and growing herbs in the shade.
This isn't a course in cooking but rather a collection of international recipes and practical tips written in an amusing, entertaining manner.
Oysters: A Culinary Celebration, by Joan Reardon and Ruth Ebling (Parnassus Imprints, $25). People who like their oysters fresh, cold, and raw on the half shell may wonder at a book full of so many things to do with this delicious seafood.
Whether reading about them on the half shell, fried, baked, or grilled, you will enjoy the way these authors tell of the oyster's history from the time the Romans discovered the flavor of Colchester oysters in the Thames River to the changing role oysters played in America - from the wigwams of the Indians to the private dining rooms of Delmonico's restaurant.
So even if oysters are a rare treat at your table, you can enjoy this book with its well-chosen quotations, anecdotes, and commentary. The authors did their research and testing for this delightful collection of old and new recipes on the shores of Cape Cod.
Nothing Fancy, by Diana Kennedy (Dial Press, $18.95) is a personal book, with descriptions of testing recipes in an ecological adobe house in the Mexican mountains, of cooking with rainwater stored in a tank, of baking mushrooms for a special mushroom soup, of spending days making pate, and of preparing things in stages and letting them mature.
Yes, Ms. Kennedy believes in taking time to cook - and also in cooking with your heart in it. Her book reflects this sentiment, as she writes about the kind of food she grew up with and which she prepares for her own comfort and pleasure.
Food Editors' Hometown Favorites, American Regional and Local Specialties, edited by Barbara Gibbs Ostmann and Jane Baker ($8.95, Hammond Inc., Maplewood, N.J. 07040). There's a combination of history and tradition in this collection of recipes from the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Association, whose members have drawn on their daily contact with chefs, cooking styles, and culinary trends. Each recipe has its own legend - from the Original Hollywood Brown Derby Cobb Salad to Chili Mac Toledo Style and Parker House Rolls.
To the Queen's Taste, by Lorna Sass (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York , $11.95). With its dishes from and descriptions of Richard II's book of feasts, this book provides a refreshing change from any of the other current cookbooks. Recipes are modernized for today's kitchens and include the finest samplings from courses ranging from Brie Tart, the grandfather of the quiche, to Lombardy Custard, a rich, delicate, dried fruit custard that still makes a fine dessert five centuries after its development. Black-and-white illustrations are from original woodcuts of the period.
Originally published in 1975, this new edition is one of four historical cookbooks by Lorna Sass.
Produce: A Fruit and Vegetable Lovers' Guide, by Bruce Beck, with photographs by Andrew Unangst (Friendly Press, $35). For everything there is a season, and this seems to be the season for cookbooks with spectacular photography.
This particular example is a book to shop by but not to cook by. There are no recipes here, but the gorgeous photos will give great pleasure, and there are good tips for selecting and storing fruits and vegetables, with helpful charts keyed to the seasons.
The Pantry Gourmet, by Jane Doerfer (Rodale Press, $15.95 hard-cover, $9.95 paperback). This is an amazing collection of delicious foods that will keep in the pantry, freezer, or refrigerator, and without the salt, sugar, excessive oil , or smoke-curing once necessary for preservation.
Jane Doerfer tells how refrigeration has made these methods obsolete. She cooks with a variety of foods that stay in top condition anywhere from one week in the refrigerator to several months on the pantry shelf.
Ms. Doerfer's freezer is stocked with homemade soups, breads, pastries, pastas, and fruit sauces; her refrigerator holds fresh tomato sauce pates and cheeses; and her pantry shelves are lined with homemade mustards and vinegars laced with fresh herbs and relishes. And her book includes directions and recipes for making those expensive fruit vinegars and mustards at a third of the cost.
The author also shares her discoveries of which foods taste better when salt is omitted, and which herbs - such as lovage - do the best job as a substitute.
The Pizza Book, by Evelyne Solomon (Times Books, $14.95). This book has a neat recipe, using the new fast-rising yeast, for pizza that goes into the oven as soon as the dough has been kneaded, rolled, and spread with topping.
Included, too, are recipes ranging from the traditional to the unusual, plus a history of the pizza.
The Cafe des Artistes Cookbook, by George Lang (Clarkson N. Potter, $10.95). This attractive cookbook has much of the charm of the New York restaurant that George Lang created from his nostalgic memories of Hungarian cafes. Located in a historic building on a historic block, West 67th Street, the restaurant has been a gathering place for artists, musicians, writers, and theater people since the early 1900s. Paul Newman, Zubin Mehta, Rudolph Nureyev, and Isaac Asimov have now replaced Noel Coward, Isadore Duncan, and Alexander Woollcott. It is still a sophisticated and very beautiful place with its famous murals by Howard Chandler Christy.
Special recipes in both restaurant and cookbook include Chef Andre's Walnut Pate, Lamb and Duck Cassoulet with Lentils, and Ilona Torte, which may well be the world's richest dessert.