Books for the Cook Choosing from the feast of titles on store shelves

November 29, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

It's so easy to buy holiday gifts for people who like to cook -- or even for some who only like to eat. There's a cookbook for every taste and pocketbook, every interest and skill level.

"People do like to buy cookbooks for Christmas, they really do," said Shiree Cherry, assistant manager at Books for Cooks at Harborplace. "Christmas is a busy time."

"December is absolutely our best month of the year," said Arlene Gillis, owner and manager of the bookstore. "We always do better in December, so I know those are gift purchases."

Ms. Gillis cited several trends that are contributing to an enduring interest in cookbooks. "People are more interested lately in doing things at home," she said. They're "cocooning," staying in, not eating out as much as in the affluent '80s. "But they still want to eat what's new, or what's in vogue," she said, so they need the latest cookbooks to find out how to do that.

Plus, Ms. Gillis pointed out, an increase in the amount of information available about health and nutrition has created demand for cookbooks that address those issues -- "even in the smallest kitchen," she said.

Certainly I'd be one of those people who said yes to gift cookbooks -- my first cookbook was a Christmas present from my mother when I was a teen-ager. The first dish I prepared from it I've prepared so often since that I long ago memorized it. But there are so many cookbooks published each year it's hard to keep up with them. What would suit cousin May, who's so concerned about the environment? For Uncle Sam, who's on a low-fat diet? For best friend Elise, who loves to bake? For Aunt Sarah, who loves Italian? Sometimes a little guidance would be in order.

No one can keep up with all the cookbooks published each year, but what follows here is a highly personal list of some of the books I've read, written about, cooked from and enjoyed over the past year. It's not an exhaustive list; there are many good books I didn't have room to include. It does include most of my favorites.

The books are rated with knife symbols (*) according to general difficulty of recipes. One knife symbol means easy, two knives mean some kitchen skills needed, three mean the recipe is for people who cook regularly and four-knife recipes are for the adventuresome or the expert. I've also noted if there are illustrations, and what kind.

BASIC

*"Lora Brody's Kitchen Survival Guide," by Lora Brody (William Morrow, $20).

When Lora Brody's college-age son announced he was getting an apartment and going to cook his own meals, she knew he didn't even know where to begin. So Ms. Brody, a Boston-based chef, cooking teacher and cookbook author, wrote a "survival guide" for her son and anyone else who is just learning the way around a kitchen. The first half of the book deals with kitchen equipment, appliances, shopping, safety, substitutes, and basic techniques. The second half contains 130 recipes and tips, some staples, such as oatmeal from scratch, and some for company, such as how to roast a turkey. *, no illustrations.

*"The Family Circle Cookbook," by David Ricketts and the editors of Family Circle magazine (Simon & Schuster, $23).

This book is subtitled "New Tastes for New Times" because, as author David Ricketts points out, today's beginning cook has access to dozens of techniques and food items that simply weren't well-known or available even 10 years ago. The book begins with a chapter on "What You Need to Know," which includes a sort of primer on herbs and spices; other chapters deal with breads and muffins, appetizers and snacks, pasta grains and beans, poultry, meats, vegetables and fruits and desserts, among others. There are also sections on grilling and on microwave cooking. The loose-leaf book is full of tips and informational blurbs, and every recipe has nutritional information. many, many photos.

FOR KIDS

*"Fanny at Chez Panisse," by Alice Waters with Bob Carrau and Patricia Curtan (HarperCollins, $23).

This is a children's book in the same way that "Eloise at the Plaza" is a children's book -- simply great for reading aloud to the kids, and entertaining and informative for all ages. In the first part of the book, "Fanny," a character based on Ms. Waters' 9-year-old daughter, plus a composite of children of family and friends, tells stories about Ms. Waters' famous Berkeley, Calif., restaurant, Chez Panisse. Each story makes a point about food and about the philosophy of the restaurant. There are 46 recipes, from pizza to roast chicken to birthday cake, all simple enough for a reasonably savvy child to participate in preparing, all sophisticated enough for adults to enjoy eating. *, charming watercolor illustrations.

*"Kids Cook," by Sarah and Zachary Williamson (Williamson Publishing Co., $12.95 paperback).

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