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CHRISTMAS, UNWRAPPED / GIFT BOOKS / COOKBOOK WATCH

A quick round of recipe-testing turns up the best cookbooks of a pretty exciting season.

December 19, 2007|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

WALK into the cookbook section of a good bookstore these days and it's what you don't see that's the biggest gift of the season. Instead of the miles of aisles of Food Network-packaged slickness, the interchangeable Paula/Rachael/Giadas that have been so inescapable all year, there are small piles of serious recipe collections from serious cooks. And some big piles, too.

There are so many tantalizing cookbooks out there that I resorted to speed dating -- dipping in and out of the most immediately appealing -- to see which would work as presents. I soon learned that counterintuitive bits -- a promise of foolproof focaccia, say, or a demand to boil oranges for an hour and a half before starting a cake -- are likely to lead straight to heartbreak. But I also learned new tricks with a favorite vegetable (squash), found some wild combinations (Brussels sprouts, chestnuts and smoked salmon rock together) and came away with a really nice pile of books to settle down with.

The heftiest books are from two prolific writers who are the antithesis of Sandra ("Semi-Homemade Cooking") Lee. Legendary cooking teacher Anne Willan of La Varenne in Burgundy is back with a dazzler that almost makes "The French Laundry" feel light, and Brooklyn-based James Peterson has produced a 542-page extravaganza boasting "600 recipes, 1,500 photographs, one kitchen education."

I was also quite taken with two restaurant collections despite their authors' status as celebrity chefs (which so often means cooks in boldface name only). Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose empire now extends to 17 restaurants around the world, has collected excellent recipes from his Spice Market, Vong and recently closed 66, and Susan Spicer of Bayona and Herbsaint in New Orleans has finally gathered her singular recipes into a richly detailed book.

Four other appealing books are all over the map, with recipes from modern India; old China; timeless Sardinia, Italy; and home cooks in France. And then there's the photo book that looks like a spoof but actually has real soul -- and quirky recipes to boot.

Willan's "The Country Cooking of France" is a knockout, a visual journey with transporting color photographs of landscapes, food and ingredients. The recipes include the very simple (croque-monsieur, moules mariniere) and the very familiar (ratatouille, brandade) -- but also the daunting (boudin blanc, roast leg of venison) and the unusual (Burgundian roast turkey with chestnuts and wild mushrooms, fruit flans baked in cabbage leaves instead of pastry).

I found dishes I have tasted only in restaurants, such as tartiflette, Reblochon cheese melted on potatoes with lardons, and some I had never even heard of, such as truffade, essentially a sensational cheese and bacon cake (with a few potatoes to hold it all together). It was so good I was not too disappointed in Willan's duck leg ragout with turnips in a Madeira sauce, which fell short of succulent.

Compared with Willan's serious tome, Trish Deseine's "Nobody Does It Better" looks at first like CliffsNotes on French cuisine. But the recipes have cleverly been pared to their essence. Both cooks prescribe baking Camembert in its wooden box, for instance, but the traditionalist does it traditionally, and the upstart does it fast.

Subtitled "Why French Home Cooking Is Still the Best in the World," this lively book is packed with temptations both weird and wonderful. I never thought of combining Brussels sprouts, smoked salmon and chestnuts, and I never imagined that something as simple as salted butter could elevate stewed apple chunks to ambrosial.

Like Willan, Deseine also does snails and frog legs and roast boar and offal, but there's a distinctly un-French playfulness to her approach, with chapters titled "Knows Her Classics" and "Steals From Chefs."

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Graphing a soup

Also like the British-born Willan, James Peterson has a grounding in French cuisine, but his 14th book, "Cooking," is more of a tutorial than a virtual journey. And he's not just cooking here: His photographs illustrate techniques such as "how to kill and cut up a lobster" and "how to make an apple pie."

As with any textbook, the material is not packed with surprises, just solid lessons. But his template for a European peasant-style soup was a wonder: Plug in your choice of meat, a fat, one or more slow-cooking vegetables, a starch, a couple of fast-cooking vegetables and a "flavorful finish" such as pesto or minced garlic and you get a gutsy, lively bowl of soup guaranteed to take you back to happy childhood, whether you had one or not.

If more of the recipes followed that model, the book would have been extraordinary, but even his smaller ideas are good. I thought I had done about everything imaginable with squash, but it had never occurred to me to try a spaghetti squash gratin. It was ridiculously easy (top the cooked strands with cream and then Gruyere) and obscenely good.

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