CHRISTMAS is a fine time for cookbook shopping. The best of the batch comes out for pre-holiday sales. And there's good reason: Cookbooks make good gifts. They are neat to wrap, pack, and mail. Also, the variety of food subjects makes it easy to pick out one that will suit the most discriminating reader or cook.
Good reading is what cookbooks are to many people, and many are slanted for the coffee or bedside table as well as for the kitchen.
This year's crop includes many written in essay format on such subjects as the new American cuisine or even the fine details of coleslaw, as in Leslie Land's The New England Epicure (Dell, $9.95).
The number of cookbooks published each year has declined slightly, according to Lisa Ekus of Lisa Ekus Public Relations, Hatfield, Mass.
There were about 1,200 cookbooks in 1986, she estimates, ``but this year the quality has increased, while the actual number is probably around 750 or 800.
``Today, publishers choose the very best, and authors write about the food and its place in the culture of the country of its origin,'' says Ms. Ekus. ``This is what makes good reading in this season's cookbooks.''
In Pursuit Of Flavor, by Edna Lewis (Knopf, $18.95), focuses on how to get the very best flavor - that old-fashioned, non-preservative flavor - from the food we buy at the supermarket. Lewis believes in organic food such as nuts and berries that grow wild, and vegetables from a carefully cultivated garden.
Since such food is not easy to find, she tells how to get the most from natural tastes. For example, by boiling corn in the husk, by adding lemon to potatoes, or by cooking fish or chicken in parchment.
Paula Wolfert's World of Food, by Paula Wolfert (Harper & Row, $25), is a personal collection of recipes from the Mediterranean area - Catalonia, Sicily, France, and Morocco. Gathered from the author's travels and friends, the dishes share elements of deep, earthy flavors and richness without heaviness. Stories behind the food and its origin accompany the recipes.
Cooking from the Garden, by Rosalind Creasy (Sierra Club, $35), offers a wealth of material for both gardener and cook. The two activities are gaining in popularity with those who want fresh food without additives or pesticides.
Profiles on people who are gardening in various ways all over the United States are included in 17 theme gardens - from Italian, French, and Oriental to edible flower, heirloom, and gourmet salad gardens.
The Great Scandinavian Baking Book, by Beatrice Ojakangas (Little Brown & Co., $19.95), is my favorite book of the season. The recipes are intriguing and the short legends with each one make you wish there were more.
There are gingerbread cookies, popular during the holidays, cut in whimsical shapes. There are butter cookies called ``little cakes,'' Danish Lace Cookies, and Lemon Wafers.
Here, too, are recipes for crusty sour Finnish rye breads, Swedish limpa, Danish pumpernickel, black breads, and delicious desserts.
Larousse Gastronomique, edited by Jennifer Harvey Lang (Crown, $50), is the new American edition of the ultimate guide to classical cuisine. Originally published in 1938, this new edition has been completely rewritten in French, then translated into English, then edited for Americans.
This most definitive reference book for amateurs and professionals alike has new sections on Chinese and Japanese cooking, and also material about nutrition, the microwave oven, and the food processor.
The International Cookie Cookbook, by Nancy Baggett, photographs by Dennis M. Gottlieb (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $24.95), is a rich, colorful sampling of cookie recipes from around the world. It includes favorites and less familiar cookies, grouped in nine regions.
Some unusual ones are Canadian salal berry cookies, Mexican molletes (cornmeal cookies), and German ``sausage'' and ``dark bread'' cookies. There's an especially dazzling holiday assortment, and all are photographed in a culinary setting that is both tempting and impressive.
The Whole Foods Encyclopedia, by Rebecca Wood (Prentice Hall Press, $14.95), is an easy book to handle. It contains a brief history of a specific food, nutritional information, tips for determining quality, and guidance on storage and preparation.
Unfamiliar foods such as amaranth, quinoa, Japanese sea vegetables, and blue and red corn are included, along with grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables from almonds to zucchini.
Wood is a whole-foods authority, and she adds anecdotes, quotations, and delicious recipes to her excellent information.
Great Convertibles, by Kit Sneddaker (Cobble & Mickle Books, San Diego, $7.95), is a neat little book with a new approach to cooking.
Starting with a basic collection of seven master recipes that you learn by heart, one can build a personal variety of dishes and a number of different menus.