The best-tasting reading this year

Here they come, just in time for the holidays: the yearly avalanche of cookbooks that could fill a Kansas corn silo. Whether you're shopping for a carnivore, omnivore, sweettoothivore, vegetarian, Sagittarian, or Presbyterian, there's a cookbook in that silo ready to be wrapped and slipped under someone's Christmas tree.

The following cookbooks are written by tried-and-true professionals who share their knowledge and expertise, and encourage you to cook outside the box. Many of these authors have their own TV series on PBS or the Food Network.

These cookbooks are bound to bring richness, breadth, and interest to your table. But don't be intimidated by the experts. The same techniques used here have been used for centuries: braising, sautéing, stewing, roasting, poaching, marinating, etc. And the techniques are reviewed, and even illustrated, in most books.

What is new is the ever-expanding range of ingredients. If they're not available at your supermarket (check there first) or ethnic stores, they can be purchased on the Internet.

TV star, celebrity chef, restaurateur, Gourmet magazine cover boy, hunk. Rocco Dispirito is hotter than Scotch bonnet pepper. In Flavor (Hyperion, $35), Mr. Dispirito seduces your palate with explosive dishes. How? He covers all four flavor zones - sour, salt, sweet, and bitter, in almost every creation. The results: Rack of Lamb With Sour Cherry Glaze; Roast Loin of Pork With Cinnamon-Glazed Tart Apples; and a Peach-Phyllo Strudel With Goat Cheese Cream. There are remarkably simple side dishes here, too, such as Fennel Purée, or, if you can afford to pull out all the stops, consider Sautéed Foie Gras With Glazed Peaches.

Dispirito has awakened my palate as few chefs have. His "secret ingredient" is not secret at all - it's imagination. And in Flavor, he encourages you to use yours.

Each recipe includes preparation time and degree of difficulty. An interesting feature is that recipes include photographs of many of the ingredients used.

Rose Levy Beranbaum's bread experience began as a toddler; her mother, a dentist, gave her fresh bagels to teethe on.

Beranbaum, author of the award- winning "The Cake Bible," has created another pièce de résistance. Within the 640 pages of The Bread Bible (Norton, $35), she sets forth the (more than 10) commandments of bread baking in meticulous, painstaking detail. She covers the map with breads from India to Italy, from American classic Parker House Rolls to a French Walnut Onion Bread and Tyrolean 10-Grain Torpedo and dozens of others. The final chapters of ingredients, equipment, and a glossary are invaluable.

This failure-proof book will guide the novice and reeducate the more experienced baker.

"Slow cooking is ancient, the way food was prepared when man first began to cook ... a connection to the grand tradition of cookery, to hundreds of generations of cooks from the past," writes renowned food writer Paula Wolfert.

In The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen (John Wiley & Sons, $34.95), Wolfert slams the brakes on slapdash "meals in minutes," turns back the clock, and shares the rewards of unhurried savory dishes.

Wolfert doesn't draw the Mediterranean line at the Italian border, either. She moves across to Greece and Turkey and down to Morocco and Tunisia to collect the recipes and exotic spices that add richness and depth to this collection of recipes.

A few dishes, such as Night-and-Day Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder, can simmer in the oven for up to 24 hours, while most others are ready for the table in an hour. These dishes take time, but it doesn't mean you have to hover over the stove while they are cooking. Most are "set it and forget it" recipes. The meltingly delicious results will convince you that it's all worth the wait. Chalk up another culinary classic for Wolfert.

Rachael Ray takes a different tack. In her latest 30-minute-meals cookbook, Get Togethers (Lake Isles Press, $18.95), Ray takes some shortcuts to save time, but doesn't sacrifice flavor. She makes no apologies for using frozen green beans or corn kernels, canned beets, or, for her Easy Lemon Mousse, a box of instant pudding mix. Other times, she is uncompromising, insisting on fresh Bing cherries, portobello mushrooms, and the best freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Ray's advice for hassle-free cooking? Relax. Her "30-Minute Meals" is one of the most popular shows on the Food Network.

Jamie Oliver looks a little wiped out. On the front (and back) cover of Jamie's Kitchen (Hyperion, $39.95), he's collapsed on the sidewalk with heavy eyelids, a coffee mug inches from his hand.

No surprise. Along with churning out cookbooks (this is his fourth), the 28-year-old wonder boy of the Food Network's "The Naked Chef" runs a restaurant called Fifteen in East London and recently put 15 unemployed, out-of-school young people through culinary training. And when he's back from his world travels promoting his books and giving cooking demos, he's helping his wife, Jools, raise their daughters, Poppy, Honey, and Daisy Boo.

Jamie's Kitchen is a large book with recipes as creative as his daughters' names. These are no-nonsense dishes, each accompanied by a full-page color photo of the result - always helpful for those who can't quite picture what Pot-Roasted Guinea-Fowl With Fennel Potatoes and Blood Orange is supposed to look like.

Can't get guinea fowl or blood oranges? Oliver recommends suitable alternatives whenever necessary.

He also includes many simple recipes, such as "Fat British Chips" (French fries to those on this side of the pond).

In this, her seventh book, Lost Recipes (Knopf, $22), food maven Marion Cunningham gathers the recipes that have been dropped from the pages of yesterday's cookbooks. These are the simple, no-fail, unintimidating dishes that your mother or grandmother may have served to her bridge club or for Saturday-night supper. There's Welsh Rabbit, Shepherd's Pie, Corn Chowder, Irish Stew, Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, and Hermit cookies to dunk in your milk.

This simple book includes a built-in pocket in which to tuck your own rediscovered, yellowed recipes. It's a fine little book for new cooks and for those who want to keep a thumb in the nostalgia pie.

David Rosengarten, author of the entertaining "The Man Who Ate Everything" and the must-have "Dean & DeLuca" cookbook classic, now brings us It's All American Food (Little, Brown, $29.95). More than half of the book is devoted to ethnic food, those "foreign" imports now firmly entrenched in American restaurants and, increasingly, in home kitchens from coast to coast. Sections on regional and classic American cooking complete the trilogy.

Rosengarten's encyclopedic knowledge of food is not lost here. Each recipe - and there are hundreds - is preceded by a paragraph of cooking hints or a bit of history, which makes this book ultimately readable, educational, and practical.

Are there any chocolate lovers out there? I thought so.

Alice Medrich, author of the award-winning "Cocolat" and owner of the Berkeley, Calif., dessert shop of the same name, indulges us with Bittersweet (Artisan, $35).

Medrich describes her chocolate epiphany when, as a young bride in Paris in the '70s, she tasted her landlady's homemade truffles. "I knew that I had tasted chocolate for the very first time." Describing it as "intense, complex and earthy," Medrich never looked back.

Bittersweet isn't a just compendium of sweet desserts, although there are many. Medrich boldly adds chocolate to classic dishes such as Coq au Vin; then there's Nibby Asparagus With Prosciutto, made with bits of chocolate, and even chocolate with chopped chicken livers. "Don't be shocked at the idea of liver and chocolate," she says. "It's a natural if you just stop thinking of chocolate as being only for dessert."

That's really what this book is about, broadening your chocolate experience.

Still dubious? There are dozens of comforting desserts to fall back on.

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