Cookbooks are gifts you don't have to stew over

Is there a budding Julia Child or a promising Emeril Lagasse on your Christmas-gift list? How fortunate. No one is easier to buy for than the serious home cook. Food catalogs, kitchen stores, and cookbooks abound. And no cook worthy of a balloon whisk ever met a new gizmo, gadget, or cookbook that he or she wasn't eager to glom onto.

This year's shelf of new cookbooks doesn't quite have the weighty panache of last year's. Still, there is a crop out there, written by some of the most familiar and trusted names, as well as a few newer ones, that is ripe for the picking, reading, and testing.

Los Angeles may be vast and varied, but residents from Malibu to Miracle Mile all seem to break from the same loaf of bread. Locals have loved La Brea Bakery for years, first as an artisan bread shop and, more recently, as a destination for some of the city's finest pastries. Co-owner Nancy Silverton, called by some "the best pastry chef in America," divulges her secrets in Nancy Silverton's Pastries From the La Brea Bakery (Villard Books, 403 pp., $35). More than 150 recipes stick to Silverton's trademark - rustic, simple, European-style baked goods with a dash of inventiveness tossed into the mix. She also shares techniques, lists of ingredients, equipment, and sources, making this book a virtual bible of its craft.

In Artisan Baking Across America (Artisan Publishers, 236 pp., $40), author Maggie Glezer takes us oven-side and up close and personal, introducing to some her favorite artisan bakers around the country. We see them stoking ovens and sharing recipes for everything from flat pizzas to towering pandoros. All are covered in precise detail - and in stunning photographs by Ben Fink.

An updated and revised edition of Splendid Soups, by James Peterson (Wiley, 630 pp., $45), brims with imagination and flavor. Peterson, a highly acclaimed cookbook author, spans the globe, ladling up an abundance of savory, and some sweet, some hot, and a few cold pleasures. There are many practical and helpful suggestions here, including how to choose equipment, identify ingredients, cut out the fat, as well as a final chapter on improvising ethnic dishes. Soup's on!

Four flavors touch the human taste buds and make them blossom. These flavors are covered in Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Artisan Publishers, 346 pp., $40). In no cuisine does this quartet come together in greater harmony than the foods of Southeast Asia. The authors do much to sort out this ancient, and esoteric cuisine through clear text and recipes, and exquisite photographs. Alford and Duguid's tastes and talents (as cooks, teachers, photographers, and writers) are elegantly pressed between the covers of this handsome book. There's no need for serious carnivores to pout. Cris Schlesinger and John Willoughby of "Licensed to Grill" and "Thrill of the Grill" fame have packed it up and moved indoors. In How to Cook Meat (Morrow, 466 pp., $35), the grilling gurus have put together some tantalizing, savory delights. How about a dish of Couscous-Stuffed Lamb Loin with Smooth Apricot-Lemon Chutney or Fennel-Crusted Flank Steak with Orange-Black Olive Relish and Spicy Mint Honey?

Most foodies have stared slack-jawed and rolled their eyes at Charlie Trotter's previous cookbooks, filled as they are with intimidating photos of recipes composed of the most obtuse ingredients; lovely to look at, delicious to eat, impossible to prepare. In Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home (Ten Speed Press, 211 pp., $32.50), the legendary master gets real. This uncharacteristically humble book is even devoid of photos. What is not lacking is Trotter's imagination and genius, and his ability to shop where you do. Now don't think that these recipes are going to show up on the cover of Woman's Day magazine. But, all things considered, they are doable for the adventuresome home cook.

Time to throw the vegetarians a bone? Consider Paul Gayler's A Passion for Vegetables (Lyons Press, 176 pp., $35). Gayler is executive chef at the Lanesborough Hotel, the highest-rated hotel for cuisine in the United Kingdom. He begins his introduction to this cookbook with, "I have always believed that one of the hallmarks of a great restaurant is the care and attention it gives to its vegetables." He obviously does. Vegans beware. This is not a strictly vegetarian cookbook. Fish, eggs, and meat are sometimes used as flavorings and garnishes. From soups - Leek, Watercress, and Blue Cheese Vichysoisse - to a Butternut Squash and Orange Sorbet, Gayler turns the common to the extraordinary. Still won't eat your Brussels sprouts? Try his Button Sprouts With Parmesan and Pearl Onions." You'll never go back to canned Le Sueur peas again.

Julia Child has done it again. Not one to put her whisk down, the "French Chef" has produced yet another cookbook for her loyal fans. Julia's Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes From a Lifetime of Cooking (Knopf, 105 pp., $19.95) is the companion to a public-television special premiering next month. The slim paperback was inspired by Child's own kitchen loose-leaf notebooks, in which she jotted down ideas, techniques, and recipes over the years. If you need to know the right proportions for a vinaigrette, how to butterfly a chicken, or what temperature to roast lamb, her book gives what she calls "quick, snappy answers to many of those questions."

When Claudia Roden first wrote The Book of Middle Eastern Food, (Knopf, 513 pp., $35), food-world giant James Beard called it "a landmark in the field of cookery." Now, almost 30 years later, the Cairo-born Roden has revised her culinary classic to reflect changing tastes. She updates more than 800 recipes and includes advice and stories gathered during her extensive travels. To find authentic recipes for such dishes as stuffed grape leaves or lamb and eggplant stew, she hung around carpet warehouses, embassies, and visa departments, talking with people, recording their every word, and then returned to her kitchen to test and develop the dishes. Before introducing the recipes, she offers a scholarly history of Middle Eastern cuisine. You'll never again think of that spinach pie the same way.

It's not an entirely unselfish act to give your sweet-toothed friends a dessert cookbook. Especially if the book is either Christopher Kimball's The Dessert Bible (Little, Brown & Co., 399pp., $24.95) or Todd English's The Olives Dessert Table (Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $35). These books would inspire even Scrooge to dust off the mixing bowls and cake pans. Kimball is founder and editor of Cook's Illustrated, and his "Dessert Bible" is just as thorough, reliable, and detailed as his respected magazine. Kimball spent years testing and retesting hundreds of classic dessert recipes. What gives the book "bible" status, is the chapter "Tips, Techniques, and Shortcuts" and the indispensable "Kitchen Equipment Buyer's Guide," which rates food processors, hand-held mixers, baking sheets, and more. The question "What can go wrong?" punctuates every recipe, demonstrating Kimball's excellent ability to relate to the home cook.

The Olives Dessert Table, which chef-owner English, of "Olives," co-authored with pastry chef Paige Retus and food writer Sally Sampson, is a collection of restaurant desserts geared for the home baker. Those who like the idea of duplicating recipes such as Black-Bottom Creme Brulee With Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies and Chocolate Sauce or Lime and Mango Tart with Zesty Lime Curd and Broiled Mangoes, from one of America's best restaurants, will devour this book. "Olives' Laws," a list of 15 rules for making killer desserts, should be tacked on the refrigerator of every dessertmaker.

There's no friend like on old friend. And what cook hasn't felt the comfort of a "Joy of Cooking" in hand while pacing the floor like a nervous father-to-be, waiting for a souffle to rise (or not)? The new "All About" series (by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker; Scribner, 128 pp., $19.95) covers specific topics in individual books: Chicken, Soups & Stews, Vegetarian, and Pasta & Noodles. Each includes more than 150 color photographs. They haven't even forgotten 50s classic "Tuna Casserole," although this one starts with making a roux and leaves out the cans of condensed soup. And there are also many recipes your grandmother never dreamed of.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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