Several themes emerge in this year's cookbook blitz: fast and easy; vegetarian and semi-veg; and baking.
For the novice, a number of cooking primers have been released. few of those feature step-by-step instructions and color
photographs Given that many new cooks have no idea what the raw ingredients -- let alone the finished meals -- should look like, the more pictures the better.
So many books in the fast and furious category were published in 1995 that I've lost count. I do remember that most seemed gimmicky.
One that isn't is "Lighter, Quicker, Better" (William Morrow, $25) by the late Richard Sax and Marie Simmons. The recipes tighten up the cooking time frame and offer tasty ways to cook with less fat and more flavor using simple ingredients. Sax, who died a few months ago, co-wrote Bon Appetit magazine's "Cooking for Health" column. The book is a wonderful legacy -- more than 200 inventive dishes with great tips for cutting calories.
Malcolm Hillier's "Good Food Fast" (Dorling Kindersley, $24.95) approaches the subject in flip-book fashion, with each recipe arranged by the minutes -- 10, 20 or 30 -- it takes to prepare. The color photographs are a bonus.
Another keeper is "Classic Home Cooking" by Mary Berry and Marlena Spieler (Dorling Kindersley, $39.95), with more than 1,000 recipes that include prep times, meal plans, step-by-step sequences illustrated with 2,000 color photos, and basic cooking methods.
Normally you don't think of a roast as something for a quick dinner, but Barbara Kafka suggests you think again. In "Roasting" (William Morrow, $25), the author of "Party Food" and "Microwave Gourmet" turns the stove up to 500 degrees and pops in everything from fruits to meats for the ultimate in intense, moist-on-the-inside taste sensations. According to Ms. Kafka, a leg of lamb can cook in an hour, a nice pork roast in less than that. It took longer in my oven (which is new and appears to be accurate), but I'm still intrigued enough to keep experimenting.
Remember how your mother planned out each week's menu in advance? Boy, those were the days. None of this "What shall I make for dinner?" at 5 each night and no frantic run through grocery aisles on the way home from work. The people at Time-Life had the same kind of moms, judging from "Monday is Meat Loaf," "Wednesday is Pasta," etc. (Everyday Cookbooks series, $14.95 each;  621-7026). The weekday series is designed for beginners or those too tired to plan their meals. Most recipes take about 30 minutes, list common ingredients and include low-fat alternatives.
Even a novice will want to have dinner parties after perusing Cheryl Merser's "Relax, It's Only Dinner" (Fireside, $14). Ms. Merser has taken time to simplify meals she's enjoyed in restaurants. She's got a terrific down-to-earth approach, isn't above canned chicken stock and knows what she's doing.
Only one vegetarian book out of about 50 new releases got me hopping to the chopping board, probably because so many rely on tons of cheese and other fatty ingredients to stoke up the taste. Not so with Steven Raichlen's "High-Flavor, Low-Fat Vegetarian Cooking" (Viking, $24.95). He turns on the taste buds with fresh herbs, spices and crisp textures that don't rely on frying, which too many veggie books do.
Be warned, though -- Mr. Raichlen uses lots of ingredients, and chopping up all that fresh stuff takes time. But the results are
From the oven
If you've never filled a pie pan or iced a cake, you might want to take a careful look at Nick Malgieri's "How to Bake" (HarperCollins, $35). Mr. Malgieri is the director of the baking program at Peter Kump's cooking school in New York. Lots of useful information is here, as well as directions for everything from muffins to pizza to layer cakes.
One book that sent me quickly to the kitchen was Lisa Yockelson's "A Country Baking Treasury" (HarperCollins, $25). One nit to pick: Every recipe calls for a different size egg, and she offers no advice on substituting sizes.
There are no nits to pick with "Maida Heatter's Brand-New Book of Great Cookies" (Random House, $25). The award-winning baker frequently mentions exercising when she's not baking; judging from the cookies I tried, it's a good idea. You can't eat just one, and they are not low fat.
If you yearn for freshly baked bread but are bored by the rectangular loaves with the paddle-mark at the bottom that emerge from your machine, try "Rustic European Breads from Your Bread Machine" (Doubleday, $25). Authors Linda West Eckhardt and Diana Collingwood Butts will have you making everything from sourdough sponges and starters to bagels, baguettes and sweet breads.
Take you higher
OK, so you've seen it, done it, eaten it. You appreciate presentation at least as much as Martha Stewart -- whose lifetime recipes, by the way, are compiled in "The Martha Stewart Cookbook" (Clarkson Potter, $27.50).
For those of you with Martha aspirations, consider Douglas Rodriguez's "Nuevo Latino" (Ten Speed Press, $27.95). The author is the chef at New York's trendy Patria restaurant, where his Cuban fusion cuisine reaches skyscraper proportions with sugar-cane spears and crispy plantain chips, among other architectural devices. The recipes are tall, Latin and luscious -- a fantasy of flavor.
Less intimidating but still high above the hoi-polloi is "The '21' Cookbook" (Doubleday, $35) by Michael Lomonaco, chef of the fabled hot spot for the Big Apple's most notable and notorious citizens. Old photos of celebrities, new photos of food, lots of lore and a scintillating selection of recipes -- none too daunting -- make this a must-have.