The Dish On The Spoon

A Top-Shelf List Of Culinary Masterpieces For The Holiday Season.

By Rebecca Cook

ONE OF THE delights of the holiday season for me is culling through the cookbooks published in the last year, picking out my favorites for recommended gift giving. The selection is often dazzling; this year, as usual, the difficulty was in paring down the lengthy list to a chosen few. If there's someone on your gift list who loves to cook, eat or is intrigued by the link between food and culture, there are some outstanding titles to choose from.

Chow Celebrating the history and the food of a local landmark, El Charro Café (Fisher Books, $24.95) is an absolutely gorgeous cookbook loaded with many of the recipe secrets of your favorite dishes from this local favorite. Written by owner Carlotta Dunn Flores, the book is interspersed with personal recollections and family anecdotes about the 75-year-old restaurant, as well as several appetizing photographs and colorful artwork by David Tineo. Whether it's the chiles rellenos, caldo de queso, or almendrado you crave for your own table, you'll likely find it here.

Most of us in the plebeian strata of life can't afford the luxury of a lifestyle makeover at the exclusive Canyon Ranch resort here in Tucson. But thanks to author Jeanne Jones, we can at least simulate the eating experience of the rich by consulting Canyon Ranch Cooking: Bringing the Spa Home (HarperCollins, $40). Rather than being intimidating or preachy, Jones presents recipes for a variety of healthy, low-fat dishes in a way that sounds not only appetizing and fun, but easily manageable for the average cook. This book would be ideal for anyone on a restricted diet who loves the sensation of indulgence, without sacrificing health benefits.

Given our border location, a fascination with the cuisine and culture of Mexico is inevitable. Two new books celebrate our neighbor to the south with a varied collection of recipes, reminiscences and historical fact. My Mexico: A Culinary Odyssey With More than 300 Recipes (Clarkson Potter, $32.50), by Diana Kennedy, not only includes a bundle of recipes but also tells the story of a woman immersed in the food and culture of Mexico. Kennedy has traveled throughout all parts of the country in search of unique ingredients and unusual dishes as well as the lore behind them. Connoisseurs of Mexican cuisine will relish the rich narrative, which includes some tempting but tricky recipes.

Although actually published in 1997, The Food and Life of Oaxaca: Traditional Recipes from Mexico's Heart (Macmillan, $32.50) is simply too good a book not to mention. Handsomely assembled with a striking series of black-and-white photographs, mouthwatering recipes and an inspired retelling of Oaxacan history and culture, this collection by Zarela Martinez weaves the sublime and the spiritual into the hard reality of Oaxacan life. Martinez offers her book to the reader with a commonly expressed Oaxacan sentiment: "Alone we cannot share life." This book begs to be shared with someone special.

Family histories and culinary legacies figure prominently in many of this year's premiere cookbooks. On the top of many lists this season is the slender tome Rao's Cookbook: Over 100 Years of Italian Home Cooking (Random House, $40). New Yorkers will immediately recognize the name of one of that city's most coveted dining experiences, a tiny eight-table restaurant that requires knowing someone really special (or a minimum four-month wait) for the hope of a reservation. Popular with the rich and famous as well as a host of regulars who've been coming to Rao's for years, there's a virtual lock on most tables until well into the next century. Fortunately, Frank Pellegrino's family recipe collection makes it possible for those of us outside the in-scene to create Rao specialties right at home. All you'll need to complete the effect is a red-and-white checked tablecloth and a well-chosen bottle of Chianti.

The Elephant Walk Cookbook: Cambodian Cuisine from the Nationally Acclaimed Restaurant (Houghton Mifflin, $35), by Longteine De Montiero and Katherine Neustadt, enjoys the distinction of being the first volume on Cambodian cooking published in the U.S. De Montiero describes this cuisine as being "less salty" than Vietnamese cooking and "less sweet" than Thai cuisine. Reflecting the culinary influences of China, India, France, Portugal and Spain, Cambodian cooking reveals itself to be as intricately complex as the country itself: subtle yet bold, simple yet elaborate. All of it sounds--and thanks to some stunning photos, also looks--delicious. Included with the recipes from Boston's Elephant Walk Restaurant is an overview of Cambodian history, and how De Montiero and her husband were forced to flee the country in 1975 once the Khmer Rouge came to power.

For college students, newlyweds or novice cooks on your holiday list, this year's hot title is How To Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food (Macmillan, $25). Author Mark Bittman has compiled a collection of some 1,500 recipes, each one accessible to even the most rank amateur in the kitchen. Far from a dull recitation of basic recipes, Bittman's collection sings with the dual tunes of innovation and tradition. Anything you've ever wanted to know how to cook, plus a few things you probably never imagined, are included here. "Anyone can cook," begins Bittman, "and most everyone should." This cookbook will start beginners off right.

Bittman also co-authored, along with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Jean-Georges: Cooking At Home with a Four-Star Chef (Broadway Books, $35). For the more advanced cook looking to intensify his or her quest for kitchen mastery, this book explores an assortment of enticing dishes ranging from sautéed shrimp with orange dust to bitter chocolate sorbet. One rave review I read suggested that after reading this book, one should take half a year off from all other obligations and work on perfecting the culinary art with book in hand. A very tempting proposition.

No cookbook review would be complete without at least a passing nod to the grand finale of every great meal, dessert. Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Pie and Pastry Bible (Scribner, $35) deserves shelf space from all cooks dedicated to that most elusive of delicacies, the perfect pie crust. Chock-full of recipes for every kind of pie imaginable, the book also includes recipes for brioche, savory pot pies, empanadas, croissants, and flaky Danish pastries. There's no pie or pastry entity that Beranbaum won't guide you through to making with a sure hand.

Chocolate: From Simple Cookies to Extravagant Showstoppers (HarperCollins, $40) is an elegant testimonial to that most tempting of sweets. With recipes covering the most elementary preparations to those whose assemblage requires significant amounts of time and energy, Nick Maglieri's book is filled with every manner of chocolate indulgence. Beautiful photographs whet the appetite, and explicit instructions make it seem plausible that these masterpieces can indeed be duplicated successfully at home. Serious chocolovers will get high just flipping through the pages.

Lovers may want to check out Isabel Allende's latest work, Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses (HarperFlamingo, $26). "Appetite and sex are the great motivators of history," Allende writes; and her cookbook cum memoir does indeed unfold like a bizarre cross between Anais Nin and Julia Child. Aphrodisiacs figure prominently (anything from the exotic rhinoceros horn to the more commonly acknowledged raw oysters), and chapters with titles such as "Forbidden Fruit" and "The Saucy Way to Foreplay" suggest various techniques to lure your lover into sensory ecstasy. Over 100 recipes are sprinkled throughout the book. "If cookbooks make up part of your library, books on eroticism should, too," Allende advises. This book fills both bills.

Dining Out: Secrets from America's Leading Critics, Chefs and Restaurateurs (John Wiley & Sons, $29.95), by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, leads readers through the often temperamental world of the restaurant business. With a Rashomon-like perspective, Dornenburg and Page interview reviewers, chefs and the managerial minds who make the business buzz. Each side of the kitchen door gets their say, contributing to a fascinating and accurate depiction of what the restaurant trade is all about. Anyone who's ever been on the inside of the biz, as well as anyone who's ever penned a restaurant review, is bound to get a kick out of this one.

There are certainly other cookbooks, culinary memoirs and biographies in the stores this holiday season, but the above titles comprise some of the very best. From Tucson to the far reaches of Cambodia, from the basics to exotic, erotic, or the inside scoop, this year's offerings have it all. Enjoy, and bon appetit!

Many thanks to Borders Books & Music, 4235 N. Oracle Road, for providing the above titles for review. TW

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