JULIA CHILD's newest and seventh book, ``The Way To Cook,'' (Knopf $50) is her magnum opus and a wonderful, lavish tome with plenty of pictures. This one is the biggest and most comprehensive collection of Child recipes and comments, yet it has the same warm, generous, informal approach that has made her the most celebrated cook in America. More than 800 recipes make a very large size book that includes hundreds of color photographs - some with ``how-to'' steps. ``They're all taken from the cook's point of view,'' Mrs. Child explains during an interview. ``This is very important.''
``Although it's a large book, it's not trying to be an encyclopedia,'' she says. ``It covers a lot of ground, though - what I consider the basics.''
Today's basic cookbooks are aimed at adults setting up households who need to learn the basics of how to roast a chicken. Many of them ate take-out food as teenagers and probably had two working parents.
They can order almost any ethnic food - from Mexican to Szechuan - but may never have cleaned an artichoke or poached a pear. To this new generation of cooks who have not grown up with the old traditions, Child gives this advice: Learn the basics and understand what you are doing so that cooking can be easier, faster, and more enjoyable.
Her new book emphasizes much simpler preparation than her first cookbook did with its ten-page recipes and involved classic sauces. The changes are not revolutionary, but she includes shortcuts for making French bread, for cooking poultry, and for easier meat dishes.
``I've broken with the conventional organization of cookbooks,'' she says. ``The usual cookbook puts all lamb in one section and all beef in another, all carrots under vegetables, or salmon or game hens in their separate places, and so on.
``What I've done, wherever possible, is to put things together by method - veal chops with pork chops because they cook the same way, for example. Chicken stew is with turkey-wing ragout and rabbit stew. If you can do one stew you can do the others because they're assembled, simmered, and sauced the same way.
``The technique is what's important here. And when you realize that a stew is a stew is a stew, and a roast is a roast whether it's beef, lamb, pork, or chicken, cooking begins to make sense.''
What you find in this cookbook is the thread of common sense that binds the whole together - the explanations, observations, and opinions that are so typical of America's laureate cook.
This book is also different from her others because, although she still sticks to the basic French techniques that she has interpreted and popularized so well in this country, she has branched out with a new flair and inventiveness that is clearly emerging in American cooking today. Recipes are easier, lighter, fresher.
No wonder this is the first cookbook to be chosen for the main selection of this month's Book of the Month Club.
``It was a natural for the first cookbook to be given the lead spot in the club,'' said Lawrence M. Crutcher, president of the book club. ``We believe her new book is a classic, an absolute essential for the kitchen bookshelf.''
Attitudes about food have changed since the first Julia Child cookbooks. With less time to shop and to cook, people are becoming more health conscious, she points out. ``We are more aware of what is in our food today,'' she says, ``but I don't like what seems to be a ``fanatical fear of food'' creeping into the American dining mentality.
``Too many people nowadays get in such a panic when familiar foods are suddenly branded ``not good for you'' or ``a hazard to eat,'' she says. ``It is ironic that these ideas are exaggerated by some media, just at a time when America is bursting with well-stocked markets, old-fashioned, farm-raised chickens; carefully harvested fish; and fresh vegetables and herbs.''
The Julia Child solution to the problem: Cook more of your own food at home.
``If you make a habit of good home cooking then you know you are working with the best and freshest ingredients. You can be in control of what goes into every dish,'' she says.
Child's new cookbook also emphasizes a return to the pleasures of the table.
``Now that we have been through a period of indulgence it's time to return to the joys of breaking bread together,'' she says. ``Healthy eating means moderation. It means moderate helpings, and it means including a great variety of foods in our diet.
``But don't think it means banning those delicious rich foods that make life memorable - like a favorite gooey chocolate cake or a rich duck mousse or poached sole with a special buttery lobster sauce. We must just remember these are not everyday foods - save them for special occasions.''
With her disarming enthusiasm for new and sensible approaches to cooking and eating, Mrs. Child never loses sight of ``a beautifully conceived meal.''
``Dining with one's friends and family is certainly one of life's innocent delights, one that is completely soul-satisfying,'' she says.
``That lovely, old-fashioned phrase, `The pleasures of the table!' really evokes food as an art form and an integral part of civilized living.''