A few plums from this year's crop of cookbooks

Cookbooks are churned out faster than chocolates on Lucille Ball's assembly line. While it's almost impossible to pontificate as to which deserve the best-of-the-year blue ribbons, we do have our favorites. It's often said that the best gifts are those you'd buy for yourself. The following six cookbooks are those we found easy to purchase, but difficult to give away.

One of the most treasured is The Best Recipe (Boston Common Press, 560 pp., $29.95). With their usual attention to detail, the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine deliver meticulously tested recipes for 700 dishes. Their chocolate-chip cookie recipe was tested and tweaked 80, yes, 8-0, times, gumbo 70 times, and crme brle 38. More than 200 illustrations visually demonstrate dishes, and descriptions of how they developed the "best" recipe keep the text conversational. This gastronomic classic belongs on every serious cook's shelf.

Another on the "best" theme is Food and Wine's second-annual Best of the Best (American Express Publishing Corp., 319 pp., $29.95), a collection of what the magazine's editors decided are the 35 most outstanding cookbooks and 115 recipes of 1999. Most of their picks are from the masters, including Emeril Lagasse's "TV Dinners," and Paula Wolfert's "Mediterranean Grains and Greens." Jasper White's Lobster Risotto was voted "most delectable recipe of the year" by editor-in-chief Judith Hill. Each recipe is printed as it appears in its original cookbook and is preceded by an explanation of why it was chosen and by highlights from the book.

For the apartment dweller who's tight on space and can't fit in all 35 books represented, "Best of the Best" will get them cooking everything from truffle chips to meatloaf just like a pro.

Those who watch the Food Network on TV have surely seen Ming Tsai work his wonders. With Blue Ginger: East Meets West Cooking With Ming Tsai, by Ming Tsai and Arthur Boehm (Clarkson Potter, 275 pp., $32.50), they will no longer have to fumble for pencil and paper to jot down his recipes, tips, and techniques. Called the "foremost interpreter of East-West cuisine in America today," the chef and owner of Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, Mass., insists that his cooking isn't "fusion food" (or "con-fusion food"). The key, he says, is to respect each tradition enough to combine diverse elements harmoniously. For example, his Foie Gras and Morel Shu Mai transforms a simple Asian dish into a supremely elegant one. His exquisitely artistic creations demonstrate both cultures' high regard for food that's as sublime to look at as it is to eat.

Television has made the world's greatest cooks much more accessible. Leading the pack of original TV talent is, of course, Julia Child. She is still teaching viewers how to bone a chicken or make a creamy hollandaise sauce and signing off with her familiar "Bon appetit." Now French chef Jacques Pepin is by her side to cajole, complement, and compare cooking techniques. The companion volume to public television's Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home (Knopf, 430 pp., $40) is every bit as entertaining as the program and even more useful. Colorful comments from each of these formidable cooks make it a good read and differing opinions on such topics as tools used to scramble eggs (Julia likes a wooden spoon; Jacques uses a whisk) or what type of chicken to buy (Jacques insists on organic and free-range; Julia doesn't) prove that cooking, like any art, is highly individual.

Like a film with Anthony Hopkins, it's hard to go wrong with a cookbook by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison. The couple have established quite a following with award-winners "The Border Cookbook" and "Smoke and Spice," and their latest, American Home Cooking (Broadway Books, 470 pp., $30) is sure to swell its ranks. The Jamisons foraged all across America for the book's 300 down-to-earth recipes, visiting a cheese-crafting family in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania Dutch farmers, African-American catfish farmers in Mississippi, a live poultry vendor in Providence, R.I.'s Little Italy, and more. Pithy quotes from such culinary greats as M.F.K. Fisher and James Beard entertain while evocative recipes such as Santa Fe Breakfast Burritos, South Carolina Shrimp and Grits, and Nantucket Corn Pudding offer a kitchen-table tour of America's regional riches.

Susan Purdy's "The Family Baker: 150 Never-Let-You-Down Basic Recipes" (Broadway Books, 248 pp., $25) is one book that will become quickly soiled and dogeared (the true test of a cookbook's usefulness), as it's referred to time and time again for decorating cakes and cookies, making muffins, organizing children's ice-cream parties, or hosting a bake sale. Ms. Purdy, award-winning author of "Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too" and "Let Them Eat Cake," calls her latest book "a celebration of families baking together and sharing the pleasures of the table." The recipes were created to "inspire creativity as well as taste buds." Best of all, Purdy isn't too high and mighty to speak to the novice. Everyone has made rolls that don't rise, excessively doughy cookies, or pie crust that puffs up. She addresses such glitches with step-by-step diagrams and trouble-shooting tips, taking the guesswork out of baking.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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