Pick of the cookbooks

Herbs, Gardens, Decorations and Recipes, by Emelie Tolley and Chris Mead (Clarkson N. Potter Inc., $30), is such a singularly beautiful book that it could be the one book of the season for anyone who appreciates the beauty of a field of lavender, or a garden path laced with creeping thyme, or the pungent aroma of lamb grilled with a bouquet of rosemary, coriander, and mint. Along with glorious pictures of a Shakespearean garden on Nantucket Island, a summer herb salad from Richard Olney's Proven,cal home, and wild herbs on a Greek mountainside, there are excellent directions for cooking with herbs, as well as for decorating, drying, arranging, and growing them. For Men Only, Mastering the Microwave, by CiCi Williamson and John Kelly (Barron's, $18.95), is a basic beginner's cookbook filled with hearty, man-sized recipes for soups, stews, chilies, one-pot meals, company dishes, and desserts. All recipes are simple and require no previous cooking knowledge, the authors say. Color photos are amplified by black-and-white step-by-step directions.

Perhaps most important is the information on the microwave's inner workings and tips on avoiding common cooking mistakes. Co-author John Kelly is a retired naval officer with a background in electrical engineering who loves to cook and especially to eat. CiCi Williamson is co-author of ``Microscope,'' a syndicated newspaper column.

Egyptian-born Suzy Benghiat has lived in England since 1948, but she hasn't lost her love for Middle Eastern cooking. In colorful London flat she told me of its colorful mosaic of cuisine: Egyptian, Turkish, Moslem, Jewish, Greek, and a smattering of French and Italian. The recipes in her book Middle Eastern Cooking (Harmony Books, $12.95) represent all of them.

Her approach to cooking is somewhat offhand, since she believes a recipe shouldn't be followed word for word. It should be a guide, with the cook adjusting spices, seasonings, and other personal touches.

Mary Gubser's America's Bread Book (William Morrow, $22.50) is the result of her 65,000-mile journey across the United States in search of recipes for the staff of life. The wide range of ethnic and whole-grain breads is for everyday and holidays, says this Oklahoma cooking teacher, who baked her first loaf of bread during a bakery strike in 1946 and has been baking bread ever since.

Mrs. Gubser's collection of 300 recipes includes breads, rolls, biscuits, and coffee cakes chosen from all 50 states.

Not that her book is limited to early American breads by any means. There are recipes to represent roots of a dozen or more heritages, from Czechoslovakian to Portugese. There are recipes for Rhode Island johnnycake, French croissants, and Bohemian Christmas bread from South Dakota.

Mary Gubser has taken material from four years of travel and woven it into this comprehensive book with stories and anecdotes of eleven journeys through the US.

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