A gift for cooking. 'Tis the season for publishers to serve up Christmas cookbooks, designed for giving. Here's a sampling.

Consumers' seemingly insatiable appetite for cookbooks is evidenced by the abundance of new publications pouring off the presses in time for the holidays. There are more books for the fall-into-winter season than ever, with brightly colored closeups of vegetables and luscious fruits and foods growing in the fields, piling up at harvest time, sizzling on the fire, and being served or eaten.

There are big, beautiful books with dazzling covers - and price tags - emphasizing style and spectacular table settings. Some are poetic, artistic, and photographically gorgeous volumes; others explore fast foods, eating on the run, and trendy eating habits; while still others introduce new cuisines.

Between these categories, there are the popular single-subject cookbooks, others devoted to American regional foods, or collections of light, quick and easy cooking, and the art of entertaining. On the next few pages is a sampling of this year's offerings.

The future ``dinette set'' will be a compact microwave oven perched on top of the TV, predicts cookbook publisher Irena Chalmers.

``Quick and easy snacks are replacing three square meals a day,'' she says in The Great American Food Almanac (Harper & Row, $14.95).

``People are cooking less and less, and being a good cook won't be important in future,'' she says. Ms. Chalmers talks about ``spa food'' and mesquite, about Korean grocers, aquaculture, video food, cottage industries, and other new food projects and ideas going on in the United States. The book touches on all these subjects and more, and it is both informative and diverting, somewhat like an organized scrapbook of food facts and foibles. -P.H.

Without endless chit-chat or folksy anecdotes comes French Family Cooking (Macmillan, $19.95 through Dec. 31; $25 thereafter). There's little need for words in this well put together and beautifully photographed book, written by the best-selling cookbook author in France, Fran,coise Bernard.

The recipes here are the best of French home cooking. Nothing nouvelle or overly complicated, only the simple wonderful foods that have fed the French for generations.

Mme. Bernard has put together a treasure chest of the best of French cooking from province to province. You only have to open it and start the pot boiling. -J.E.Y.

Food columnist Pierre Franey's newest cookbook shows that fish, once a food that intimidated cooks, can be both quick and easy to prepare. The Seafood Cookbook (Times Books, $22.50) is written with Bryan Miller, restaurant critic and food writer for The New York Times. Focused on the needs of the home cook, the book offers recipes that can be prepared in under one hour; one-third of them can be made in 30 minutes or less. -P.H.

It's not quite food-to-go, but more like eat-and-run. Jane and Michael Stern's Real American Food (Knopf, $19.95) is an atlas of American off-the-road and storefront eateries. Their wit, delightful writing style, and ever-eager palates continue nonstop in their latest book. From street vendors in New York to boarding houses in the South, ``rude food'' in the Midwest and ``manly food'' on the West Coast, the Sterns have the most delightful time taking you along as they munch their way across country. -J.E.Y.

Chef John Sedlar prepares meals the way most artists approach a blank canvas. Each of the dishes in Modern Southwest Cuisine (Simon & Schuster, $22.95) is a masterpiece. Fish, for example, is presented in the style of a woven Navajo basket, and sauces may be ``painted'' with Aztec arrow designs. Desserts may be reminders of Georgia O'Keefe's paintings - an antelope ``stenciled'' on a rich chocolate truffle-torte; a corncob molded of white chocolate in a pool of caramel sauce.

A native of the American Southwest and chef at Saint Estephe, a small restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Calif., Mr. Sedlar has combined the traditional ingredients and the kitchen vernacular of American Southwestern cooking with the techniques of nouvelle French cuisine. His cookbook is one of the most interesting of all those available on Southwest cooking. -P.H.

The slick and glossy California Cooking (Potter, $24.95) is put together by the Art Museum Council, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Photographed by Michael Skott, it beautifully illustrates all that's ``in'' and whimsical in California right up to the moment. In this year of photo-cookbooks, this one is especially well done. Oh, yes, there are recipes, too, gathered from ``some of California's most accomplished home cooks.'' A menu for a ``Grazing Dinner for Twelve'' includes such tidbits as Veal Carpaccio; Filet of Sole With Pine Nuts, Onions, and Raisins; and Artichoke, Eggplant, and Goat Cheese Pizza. The emphasis is on the fresh and lighter foods that are fashionable in California and well beyond. -J.E.Y.

Poetic is the word for The Arcadia Seasonal Mural and Cookbook (Abrams, $14.95), and it can take awards for being the most unusual and perhaps artistic of them all. Chef Anne Rosenzweig and graphic illustrator Paul Davis have created an enchanting foldout book that almost looks like a lovely little collection of poems, which combines art with four of the chef's seasonal American menus from her New York restaurant, Arcadia.

Each special-occasion menu was designed to harmonize with the four seasons depicted on a 70-foot mural in the restaurant. The book's special format - 28 accordian-fold pages - presents the mural as in the restaurant, a continuous panorama of nature unfolding by season. Dishes include Chimney-Smoked Lobster, Roast Lamb with Celeriac Gratin, Lemon Curd Mousse, and Chocolate Bread Pudding. -P.H.

I Hear America Cooking (Viking, $24.95), by Betty Fussell, is a wonderfully friendly book with nostalgic food pictures showing slices of regional Americana - but there is much more. The author brings to life the often silent voices of people who work with food - in smokehouses, corn mills, and fish boils. Her travels unravel the uniquely hybrid styles of the foods of the US as she tells of the characteristic emphases on innovation, self-sufficiency, and the need for speed and mobility in America's culinary heritage. -P.H.

The Chef's Companion, a Concise Dictionary of Culinary Terms, by Elizabeth Riely (Van Nostrand Reinhold, $26.95), is one of the handiest reference books for chefs, cooks, food service managers, and all who are curious about food. Its 3,000 international culinary terms make it broad in scope, but its size is workable for quick reference in the kitchen and definitions are brief and to the point. The distinctive advantage of this little volume is that it has not only the usual entries for classic French and European cuisines, but also those newer culinary words we have acquired from Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Latin American foods. -P.H.

John Hadamuscin's vision goes beyond sugarplums in The Holidays (Harmony Books, $19.95). Here's a sackful of festive feasts for celebrating every occasion from Thanksgiving to Twelfth Night.

Although there's no reason why some of the individual dishes can't be served on, say, the Fourth of July, most are based on the roasts and root vegetables one associates with the winter season. -J.E.Y.

The serenity of the Huangshan Mountains in Anhui province, the exciting port of Shanghai, fishing for carp by the great Buddha in Leshan, Sichuan province - these are some of the arresting scenes pictured in China: The Beautiful Cookbook, by Kevin Sinclair (Knapp Press, $39.95). This oversized volume makes an ideal coffeetable book. China's culinary heritage starts with the Han people, forebears of the modern Chinese, and continues on to current times. There are chapters in this book on foodstuffs of importance in this country, such as grains, seafood, vegetables, and fruit. Photographs of the food rival those of the scenery and are accompanied by recipes for all kinds of Chinese food - from simple steamed buns, egg rolls, and dim sum to Yunnan Ham shaped like flowers; Carved Winter Melon full of soup; Pork Coins in Honey; Fried Pork flavored with Laurel; Eel stewed in a Clay Pot; and many traditional dishes from this enormous and ancient cuisine. -P.H.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a thousand pictures are worth quite a mouthful. There are more than 1,000 photos between the covers of The Art Of Cooking: Preparing and Presenting Fine Food, (HPBooks, $25). Arnold Zabert has both edited and photographed his enormously helpful book. Even the simplest cooking methods and techniques are illustrated - in full color! Mr. Zabert assumes you don't know a wooden spoon from a food processor, and carefully guides you through these simple, straightforward recipes step by step. No cr^epe is left unturned. There's even a five-photo layout on how to master baking a potato in aluminum foil!

Special emphasis is placed on presentation, as well. There are, for instance, 16 illustrations of garnished tournedos. -J.E.Y.

The Compleat I Hate To Cook Book, by Peg Bracken (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $15.95), is a ``boiled down'' version of her first three cookbooks. This new collection has been updated to include the best-tasting and funniest of Ms. Bracken's recipes in one big book.

The hiliariously funny comments on cooking, along with the delicious recipes, are presented here ready to put a few laughs into the daily chores as well as some good easy food on the table.

If you enjoy a laugh or two while you cook, and while serving forth some eminently edible meals, this is your book. But don't take the joking too seriously. This book is for those who LIKE to cook, too. -P.H.

If you don't have easy access to those gourmet shops, and still want to try your hand at some of the more interesting recipes using hard-to-come-by ingredients, there's The American Mail-Order Gourmet (Running Press/Quarto, $12.95). It's a compilation of names, addresses, and telephone numbers of where to send for items like goat cheeses, fruitcakes, fancy candies, and the like. Also included is the helpful information of which credit cards are accepted. A few recipes are also included in each chapter.

The price is steep for this 128-page paperback, but if you live in the boonies and the nearest wild rice means a 500-mile sojourn, this modest book may be of some use. -J.E.Y.

Lee Bailey's Good Parties (Clarkson Potter, $19.95) is a stylish yet comfortable collection of recipes and entertaining ideas from a designer, cook, and food writer.

Mr. Bailey invites readers to share his favorite menus for small gatherings in the country, in the city, and on vacation in the Caribbean.

Bailey not only offers 160 new recipes illustrated with his own lavish color photographs, but also a philosophy for party planning that ensures a good time for the giver as well as the guests. -P.H.

Heart of the Home, (Little, Brown, $17.95) is as warm and inviting as a freshly baked homemade apple pie.

Author/artist Susan Branch has dotted this simple home-fare work with the most delightful watercolor illustrations. The text, done in script print, makes for slightly more difficult reading, but on the other hand, makes it all the more charming.

This is a simple and beautiful book, and it makes a perfect last-minute host gift for holiday giving. And best of all, the recipes aren't beyond anyone who enjoys cooking. -J.E.Y.

Co-authors Mimi Wilson and Mary Beth Lagerborg call their new book, Once-A-Month-Cooking (St. Martin Press, $7.95), a ``proven system for spending less time in the kitchen and enjoying homemade meals every day.'' By using time studies, these writers say they have perfected a method of cooking a month's worth of meals at one time.

Home freezers, microwaves, and other appliances are not necessary, they contend, although they admit appliances help and they give special tips for saving more minutes with a computer.

The book provides two complete plans for cooking an entire month's meals in a single day, plus, for those with small kitchens, one plan for cooking two weeks' worth of meals in a day.

Charts, lists, and recipes are included, and there are tips on freezing, school lunches, bread baking, how to coordinate the cooking, and even how to occupy the children when necessary. -P.H.

Jeremiah Tower has been credited with initiating the great rediscovery of American cooking that has so changed the nation's culinary landscape. His style of California cooking, drawing on bar and grill, bistro, and classical restaurant food is expressed in his book Jeremiah Tower's New American Classics (Harper & Row, $25). This is the first collection of Mr. Tower's own best recipes, and it contains everyday foods at their best, whether definitive versions of a chicken club sandwich or pasta with unexpected partners like Baked eggplant with Rabbit and Chantarelles, salads as beautiful as they are delicious, and splendid desserts like Shortbread with Apples and a Russian Gratin of Raspberries. -P.H.

Good Spirits: Alcohol-Free Drinks for All Occasions (Plume, $8.95), by Marie Simmons, a former editor at Cuisine magazine, and Barbara J. Lagowski, is the perfect ``how-to'' book for those who want quick and imaginative ideas for entertaining.

Recipes are arranged around 20 different social occasions, from parties and brunches to holiday open houses. Recipes include a cranberry-honeydew spritzer, ice chocolate expresso, and the world's best lemonade. -P.H.

The title, The Wolfgang Puck Cookbook (Random House, $19.95), seems straight-forward enough.

But the recipes - Angel Hair Pasta with Smoked Salmon and Golden Caviar, Bay Scallops and Shrimp Seviche in Tortilla Cups, Chicken Breasts stuffed with Goat Cheese and Fresh Herbs, with Chanterelle and Maui Onion Vinaigrette - are the esoteric stuff we've come to expect from this super-chef to the stars.

Wolfgang Puck, owner of two Los Angeles restaurants, Spago and Chinois on Main, has that remarkable genius of being able to combine a variety of ethnic styles on one stove. The results are pure Puck. No political boundaries here. He juggles Oriental with Italian and French with Mexican ingredients, and the results draw more Hollywood stars than Academy Awards night. Not that every recipe is difficult. Many are quite simple. He even throws in a recipe for good old chicken stock.

But if you want to know what these dishes are going to look like, you'll just have to make them yourself. There are no glossy photos here, just recipes to tantalize adventurous tastebuds. (Linda Evans won't even look at the menu until she's had a bite of Duck Sausage Pizza). -J.E.Y.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor. Staff writer John Edward Young covers travel and food.

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