What's Cooking for the Holidays?
A Monitor selection of 1991 cookbooks reflects the breadth of cuisines and the emphasis on freshness that mark today's menus
BOSTON — 'DIVERSITY" is the word in the new cookbooks for Christmas giving and for ideas to help with the holiday baking and entertaining.Foods from the Mediterranean still maintain their hold on the public's fancy - perhaps because "it's a cuisine that doesn't need to be changed," says Judith Jones of Knopf Publishing. "It has pungent flavors and lots of fresh vegetables and fruits and you don't need to make a lot of substitutions." Recent cookbooks published in the United States also reflect a respect for fresh ingredients and a wide use of the quick-cooking techniques of Asian cuisines. California food writer Marion Cunningham says although she sees a strong trend to simpler, homey food, and books full of luscious desserts, she finds prose-oriented cookbooks are on the increase with essays on how we dine, cook, and entertain. Here is a selection of the year's cookbooks to think about: Fruit: A Connoisseur's Guide and Cookbook, by Alan Davidson (Simon & Schuster, $30). Erudite, entertaining, educational - this newest and stunning book by Mr. Davidson is part art book, part encyclopedia, part recipes. First by climate, then by species, fruits are organized to perfection here. With each profile there is a handsome watercolor by Charlotte Knox. Recipes range from simple to exotic, such as Raspberry Buckle, Mango and Apple Tart, and Ginger, Apricot, and Almond Pudding. American Gourmet: Classic Recipes, Deluxe Delights, Flamboyant Favorites, and Swank 'Company' Food from the '50s and '60s, by Jane and Michael Stern (Harper Collins, $25). With their affectionate if ironic observations of the American culinary scene, the Sterns have traced the changes from fondues and flaming desserts to Chicken Kievski, Steak Diane, Quiche Lorraine, and Classic Flaming Baked Alaska. From the era of fantastic ways of mixing and matching store-bought processed foods to Nouvelle Cuisine, they've collected recipes from restaurants, television shows, and magazines of the days when various foods were in and out of style in a flash. Trendy Americans move so quickly from one fad to another that often the good things are left by the wayside. The Sterns recognized this and have saved some of the best dishes. Simply French: Patricia Wells Presents the Cuisine of Joel Robuchon (William Morrow & Co., $35). Journalist, cookbook author, and leading restaurant critic of France, Ms. Wells showed people around the world how to enjoy the common delights and out-of-the-way treasures of France in her first books. Now she shares her learning experience of four years in the kitchen of Joel Robuchon, the Michelin three-star chef at Jamin, his Paris restaurant. Breathtaking photographs of the dishes indicate Robuchon's modern approach, which sacrifices none of the refinements of the last 300 years of French cooking. "Discipline like you've never seen, perfection in the tiniest detail - this talented chef changed completely the way I approach the most basic tasks in my kitchen," Wells says. With her unique perspective, Wells has translated Jamin's celebrated dishes so the home cook can capture and combine flavors of Robuchon's distinctive and "simply French" cuisine. The Frugal Gourmet Celebrates Christmas, by Jeff Smith (William Morrow & Co., $25). A colorful, festive book, this latest from the irrepressibly cheerful television cook (and Methodist minister) is a blend of Biblical stories, Christmas cards, carols, and holiday foods. "It is not about Christmas table decorations," Mr. Smith says. It's about Christmas past and present, with explanations of the significance of Advent, and the story of how Santa Claus came to America. Recipes are rooted in the true meaning and events of Christmas, with special stories of everyone who appears in the traditional creche or manger scene, plus recipes that bring them into your own holidays. Smith and his culinary assistant, Craig Wollam, show how to prepare dozens of holiday cakes, puddings, and cookies while telling about traditions like Hanukkah, Swedish Winter Feast, and an Italian Christmas Eve dinner. Recipes and menus for these and other holiday celebrations are included. Chef Paul Prudhomme's Seasoned America, by Paul Prudhomme (William Morrow & Co. $23). Nobody has quite the same ability to make things sparkle with flavor as Chef Paul. His new book adds that sparkle to such classic American recipes as Shaker Apple Dumplings, New England Clam Chowder, West Coast Egg Foo Yung, and Indiana Dutch Cabbage Rolls. His book tells how to bring out the flavor of favorite family dishes by adding just a touch of nutmeg, a bit of brown sugar, a simple spice that's more than just salt and pepper. "Every dish must have one taste that brings you back to it," Prudhomme says: "I want people to understand how delicious our American traditional food can be." The Art of South American Cooking, by Felipe Rojas-Lombardi (Harper Collins, $25). A native of Peru, the late chef-owner of The Ballroom in New York was a teacher often praised as one of the most creative chefs in the country. The culinary education he received from his mother is described in his book along with warm family memories, historical details, and recipes reflecting South America's rich heritage. There are comments on pre-Columbian foods and recipes such as Tamales Cuzquenos (tamales native to Cuzco, Peru), Lamb Brochettes, Ocopa (a potato and pepper dish), and Mana (cookies made with hazelnuts and lemons). Kwanzaa - An American Celebration of Culture and Cooking, by Eric V. Copage (William Morrow & Co. $23). This year marks the 25th anniversary of Kwanzaa, an American-originated holiday of African culture heritage. The celebration lasts from Dec. 26 to New Year's Day. Kwanzaa means "first fruits" in Swahili and the foods associated with its celebration are from Africa and countries where blacks' descendants are living. The seven days of Kwanzaa are associated with the seven principles of Kwanzaa: self-determination; collective work and responsibility; cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Author Eric Copage, an editor of the New York Times, has written this first book on the holiday including its history, its principles and its food. The recipes are easy to read and to follow, instructions are efficient, the selection is diverse and delicious. Short stories and folk tales illustrate what the holiday stands for, and the 140 recipes are from black America, Africa, Central and South America, and the Carribbean. The Simple Art of Vietnamese Cooking, by Binh Duong and Marcia Kiesel (Prentice Hall Press, $30). Binh Duong, a new American citizen, presents his native land's dishes in a broad, readable, and practical manner highlighted with fascinating cultural traditions. These recipes use little meat but lots of shrimp, crabs, and rice. Their directions make Vietnamese cooking easy. China's Food, by Nina Simonds (Harper Collins $19.95). Ms. Simonds has written the first comprehensive guide to the food and restaurants of the People's Republic of China - the tea houses, the food markets, the famous street foods. She writes of talks with China's leading food historians, gives guidelines for ordering a simple meal or a banquet, and even has tips on how to escape from your tour group to dine on your own. Anyone who likes Chinese food will enjoy this book, and it would be a waste of the airplane ticket to travel to that country without it. Simonds was the only woman listed in Newsweek magazine's list of "America's 25 Top Asia Hands." She has been traveling and working in China since 1971, when she left college to go to Taiwan to study Mandarin and Chinese cooking. Here are three handsome cookbooks to grace any coffee table for perusing or serious involvement. All are richly illustrated and contain numerous recipes: Italy: A Culinary Journey edited by Antony Luciano (Collins Publishers, $45). The first book in the "Culinary Journey" series encompasses geography, history, and the culinary traditions of all 20 regions of Italy with magnificent color photographs of each recipe. Mexico: The Beautiful Cookbook, by Susanna Paluzuelos (Collins Publishers, $45). The newest volume in the "Beautiful Cookbook" series includes recipes from every region of Mexico, with food and location photos. The Heritage of French Cooking, by the Scotto sisters and Annie Hubert Bare (Random House, $40), is the second in the "heritage series," which began with Lorenzo de Medici's The Heritage of Italian Cooking (Random House, 1990). This one has glorious paintings of food and dining scenes by old masters and accessible bistro recipes.