A Season of Cookbook Sensations

IF the joy of your holiday gift-giving starts with a cookbook, you'll have no trouble finding some to fit your list. The choice ranges from lavish to Spartan, from pocket-size recipe collections to expensive coffee-table picture books.

There are books you can flip through to check the length of the instructions and the ease of preparations.

Others have step-by-step pictures or sketches. You can find authentic Chinese dishes streamlined to be easy and quick; Italian recipes with only three or four ingredients, and baking books that are low on rich ingredients but high on flavor.

Well-known chefs and food writers have also contributed to this year's generous roster of books that tell the the history and take out the mystery of cooking good food at home. Here are some of the best:

Patricia Wells' Trattoria is a masterpiece of clarity, chock-full of concise, easy, and unpretentious dishes. Subtitled ``Healthy, Simple, Robust Fare Inspired by the Small Family Restaurants of Italy,'' her newest book captures the exuberant flavors of the country's recipes, some with only three or four ingredients.

Regional specialties are as basic as Grilled Zucchini with Thyme; Chicken with Confit of Red Bell Peppers; and Ricotta Cheesecake with Pine Nuts.

China Express, by Nina Simonds, gives more than a nod to the wholesomeness of this traditionally well-balanced ancient cuisine. The recipes don't take all day to prepare. Simonds has streamlined many steps while emphasizing the basic characteristics of Chinese cooking. She offers simplified recipes for Peking Duck, Pan-Fried Lemon Scallops with Ginger and Sesame; Turkey Cutlets with Spicy Sauce; and Poached Peaches in Cinnamon-Ginger Syrup.

Chef Paul Prudhomme's Fork in the Road, by Paul Prudhomme, includes a new collection of Louisiana recipes from the chef who has taught the world about Cajun seasonings.

His ``fork in the road'' is a journey toward a different way of cooking, with an emphasis on low-fat foods. He suggests using broths and sauces instead of cream or butter in his famous gumbos, etouffees, remoulades, and other specialties. Recipes have been simplified but retain the texture, richness, and taste for which he is famous.

A Julia Child cookbook can never miss as a gift for any cook. Cooking With Master Chefs, by Julia Child, is a companion volume to the current television series in which she introduces 16 of the country's most talented chefs. Photographs of the chefs in their kitchens are teamed with recipes that Mrs. Child has edited for the home cook.

Nicole Routhier's Cooking Under Wraps unveils recipes ranging from Mexican empanadas to Vietnamese spring rolls to Moroccan chicken pie.

The author tells marvelous historical tales of wrapped foods, some dating back to 4000 BC, and many of which are still made today. For example, flatbreads cooked on rocks by prehistoric man, she explains, are the basis of Dragon and Phoenix in Lotus Leaves, also known as Mu Shupancakes.

Routhier tells of fillings wrapped in leaf bundles, banana leaves, buns, biscuits, and cornhusks. Line drawings of this original food illustrate how to roll and wrap. The diversity includes Banana and Black-Bean Pudding in Banana Leaves, Basil Gorgonzola Purses, and Chocolate-Mango Tortillas.

Cooking With Daniel Boulud, by Daniel Boulud, is the answer to those who can't get to this chef's celebrated New York restaurant. It will inspire home cooks to try some of his famous dishes. The inventive and exciting cuisine from this former executive chef of New York's prestigious Le Cirque restaurant may appear daunting at first, but the recipes have been adapted for cooking at home and are actually quite down to earth.

More than just a collection of stunning dishes, the book touches on Boulud's philosophy of using only the finest, freshest foods in season. A handsomely illustrated seasonal market list is also exceptionally helpful.

Some dazzling dishes are: Stuffed Quail with Fresh Figs and Swiss Chard Leaves; Roasted Endives Wrapped in Bacon with Juniper and Orange; and four different vegetable casserole recipes, each for a different season.

Sweets include Oven-Roasted Strawberries with Verbena Ice Cream; Chocolate Mousse with Honey Popcorn, and Rhubarb and Mango Compote with Strawberry.

Have Your Cake and Eat it, Too, by Susan Purdy, gives the lowdown on light baking, suggesting simple substitutions that don't sacrifice richness.

Compiling a comprehensive guide to low-fat baking is no easy task. It sometimes took Purdy 30 or more testings for familiar recipes from which she has eliminated some, although not all, of the fat, eggs, and butter.

Especially good are Pear Gingerbread Upside-Down Cake, Nectarine-Raspberry Crumble, and ``the easiest'' pie crust the author has ever made.

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