OCCASIONALLY a cookbook appears on the best-seller list, usually because it contains something more than good recipes: eloquent writing on food history, or details about special cultures or lifestyles. This year, a number of cookbooks make for good reading as well as good cooking. Here's a sampling of the best of the new books.
The Short-Cut Cook, by Jacques Pepin (William Morrow & Co., $19.95). One of the world's foremost cooking teachers, Mr. Pepin has filled his newest book with time and labor-saving techniques that will simplify and improve every dish. His book tells how to make wonderful French bread, homemade fresh ravioli, a special lobster dish - all in very little time. Pepin shows preparation techniques, and equipment and supplies that will save time and energy for busy people with gourmet appetites.
The Frugal Gourmet On Our Immigrant Ancestors: Recipes You Should Have Gotten From Your Grandmother, by Jeff Smith (William Morrow & Co., $19.95). This is the fifth and probably most exciting cookbook by Mr. Smith, which includes foods from 35 ethnic groups that emigrated to the United States.
There are Welsh Cakes and Welsh Rarebit from a Pennsylvania community sing and supper; Lentil and Rice Soup from a Persian chef in Chicago; Tostones from Puerto Rico; and Caraway Pretzels from a Latvian friend in Seattle.
The book will ``remind you of the tastes and smells of your grandmother's kitchen or get you cooking for your children or grandchildren,'' Smith says. The book follows Smith's new series on PBS-TV.
Monet's Table: The Cooking Journals of Claude Monet, by Claire Joyes, photographs by Jean-Bernard Naudin (Simon & Schuster, $29.95). This cookbook offers insights into the turn-of-the-century lifestyle of one of the world's most celebrated Impressionist painters through descriptions of family meals, special celebrations, and picnics, as well as luncheons with friends, other artists, and leading figures of the time.
There are spectacular color photographs of Giverny, France, and reproductions of Monet's paintings. Finished dishes are photographed in the striking chrome-yellow dining room from recipes collected from Monet's travels, from restaurants he frequented in Paris as well as from friends, such as C'ezanne's bouillabaisse and Millet's petits pains.
Author Claire Joyes, wife of Madame Monet's great-grandson, compiled recipes from facsimile pages of Monet's journals. The dishes were prepared in Monet's handsome blue-and-white tiled kitchen by master chef Joel Robuchon.
The James Beard Celebration Cookbook, by Barbara Kafka (William Morrow & Co., $24). Here is a unique collection of recipes and reminiscences about Mr. Beard, America's best-known food personality.
``Beard's teaching and writings influenced every chef of importance in America,'' writes Ms. Kafka. Other food notables also contribute thoughtful memoirs as well as recipes. Kafka includes never-before-printed conversations she taped with Beard before his death in which he talks candidly about his childhood in Oregon, his fiercely independent mother, and his first memories of food.
The book includes recipes that Beard taught, loved, used, or inspired: Curried Lamb from Julia Child, Green Garlic Ravioli from Alice Waters, Pecan and Walnut Bread from Wolfgang Puck, Guacamole from Diana Kennedy, and others.
The Curious Cook: More Kitchen Science and Lore, by Harold McGee (San Francisco: North Point Press, $19.95). To Mr. McGee, food is something to pinch and probe, to watch and wonder, and ask why - then find the answer.
From scientific experiments, some conducted in his own kitchen, he answers questions such as why searing meat before cooking does not seal in the juices; why some fruits turn brown; what makes milk burn easily; what makes popcorn pop; and why onions make us cry.
Celebrating Italy, by Carol Field (William Morrow & Co., $24.95). The enthusiasm and passion this author has for Italy comes through in this energetic and highly readable book of Italian festivals.
Mrs. Field tells us of the tiny town of Villa Santa Maria in Abruzzo, for example, where there are so many chefs that an annual festival, Rassegna dei Cuochi (The Celebration of Cooks), fills the rustic streets.
At another rather wild carnival in Ivrea, the main event is a three-day battle of oranges. Teams hurl thousands of oranges at each other, juice and pulp flying.
A descriptive Traveler's Calendar lists festivals, holidays, and foods served throughout Italy all year.
The Christmas Cook: Three Centuries of American Yuletide Sweets, by William Woys Weaver, (HarperCollins, $35). This book takes you back in time to the days when Christmas meant horse-drawn sleighs gliding through the snow, and family gatherings for special once-a-year treats and traditions.
Mr. Weaver is a pioneer in American food history, and he stresses the importance of people caring for one another through food. He explains why there are no plums in plum pudding, the evolution of the cookie cutter, and the origin of doughnuts as a Christmas treat in Maine.
Recipes are adapted for present-day cooking - Candied Orange or Lemon Peel, Beet Butter, Peanut Taffy, Hickory Nut Macaroons, Chocolate Kisses, Humbug Pie, Orange Fritters, and Popcorn Balls.
We Called It Macaroni, by Nancy Verde Barr (Alfred A. Knopf, $21.95). ``We called it macaroni when I was growing up,'' Mrs. Barr says. ``I learned Italian cooking when I was a child from my grandmother and she always used the word `macaroni' for pasta.''
A third-generation Italian-American, Barr grew up in Providence's Little Italy neighborhood where immigrants clung tenaciously to their own ways of shopping and cooking.
She tells of these early Italians' passion for gardening and fresh vegetables, and of aunts and grandmothers spending all day in the kitchen. The author's aim is to preserve authentic recipes, as well as the variations adopted in the United States. She includes family photographs, sketches, and old Italian food labels among recipes such as Ziti with Minted Squash, Sweet Cornmeal Cake, Crisp Fried Salt Cod, and Chicken with Green Olives.
The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, by Marion Cunningham (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95). This revised edition for the '90s adds three new chapters: outdoor cooking, unusual vegetarian dishes, and microwave cooking. This is one of the first cookbooks to tell plainly what the microwave oven does best and worst. (Most fruits and vegetables, fish, even candy fare well - anything that requires steam and moist heat. Beans, rice, and pasta take too long, and the flavors in sauces don't blend very well in a microwave.)
Always a champion of old-fashioned breakfasts and family meals, Cunningham includes many old favorites as well as new recipes that reflect ethnic influences. There are also unusual vegetable dishes for Americans who are eating less meat.
Swallowing Clouds, by A. Zee (Simon & Schuster, $24.95). This is one of the most interesting and unique books on Chinese food. Mr. Zee has an appealing way of cleverly mixing poetry with culture and food commentary, emphasizing the language of Chinese restaurant menus. He explains how to pick out Chinese symbols on menus such as braise, stir-fry, and ``red cook.'' He tells how the character of food names are written, and explains early Chinese pictographs. Family anecdotes, folklore, and good sketches help the author present a new understanding and meaning behind this rich and complex cuisine.