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MERRY COOKBOOKS!

If there's a cook on your Christmas list, take heart. The perfect gift is waiting at your nearest bookstore, thanks to a simple truth: People who cook never have enough cookbooks.

But there is a trick to buying a cookbook. 1ow to choose? With new cookbooks appearing at the rate of several a day, picking just one, or one or two, can be daunting.

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So, to get a little guidance through the literary cornucopia, we asked more than a dozen local food enthusiasts, both in the food profession and out of it, to recommend their favorite cookbooks -- new ones, most loved ones, ones they'd give as gifts.

It's clear this is a highly individual decision: Only a few cookbooks were mentioned more than once.

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"I buy a lot of cookbooks," said Billy Himmelrich, owner of Stone Mill Bakery. "I've had people give me collections of cookbooks, like some their parents had. And I thought, I'm going to start buying them while they're first editions."

Among recent acquisitions are "Pierre Franey's Cooking in France," by Pierre Franey and Richard Flaste (Alfred A. Knopf, $30). "I happen to like and respect him," Mr. Himmelrich said. "And I just bought the new history of the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. It's a narrative and it's got recipes." The book is "The Four Seasons: A History of America's Premier Restaurant," by John Mariani with Alex von Bidder (Crown, $32.50).

Mr. Himmelrich also likes "Spur of the Moment Cook," by Perla Meyers (William A. Morrow, $25). "I think she's an excellent author. She writes a sensible cookbook."

Someone who sees a lot of cookbooks every year is Arlene Gillis, owner of Books for Cooks in the Light Street Pavilion at Harborplace. Among her favorites from the current crop are "The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean," by Paula Wolfert (HarperCollins, $30). "I like Mediterranean food, it's my taste," Ms. Gillis said, "and I think she did a lovely job. I haven't made much out of it, but what I did worked."

She also likes "Marcia Adams' Heirloom Recipes," by Marcia Adams (Clarkson Potter, $22.50). "I generally try to stay away from Midwest-type food, but that one is very nice."

She also enjoys chef Bobby Flay's "Bold American Food" (Warner, $34.95), though it propounds a cutting-edge "fusion" cuisine that she says is "about as creative as I like to get."

"Bold American Food" was also on the list of caterer Ansela Dopkin, of the Classic Catering People. Others on her must-have list were "Fish," by Mark Bittman (Macmillan, $27.50) -- "because we do so much with fish." She recently returned from a conference in Coral Gables, Fla., on New World cuisine, sponsored by the American Institute of Wine and Food, she said, "and I brought back several new cookbooks." Among them was "Big Flavors of the Hot Sun," by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby (William A. Morrow, $27.50). However, she said, "My very favorite is 'The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean.' I love it. It's healthy, we do that kind of cooking."

"I have 'In the Kitchen with Rosie,' which is very pretty and very nice," said wine representative Janis Talbott, who with her husband Bob owned Morton's gourmet food, catering and spirits shop in Mount Vernon. But, she said, the cookbook she uses more and pays more attention to is "The Settlement Cookbook," first published in 1901. "The one I have was copyrighted in '65. You can always alter things, but the basics are here -- and that's what's important in cooking."

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A cookbook given to him as a gift is the current favorite of Gary Vikan, the director of the Walters Art Gallery, who is known as a terrific cook. It's "Michel Richard's Home Cooking with a French Accent," by noted chef Michel Richard, with Judy Zeidler and Jan Weimer (William A. Morrow, $30). Mr. Richard developed the series of restaurants called Citronelle, one of which sits atop the Latham Hotel.

"It was given to me by the manager of the hotel when I got the [Walters] job," Dr. Vikan said. "I read his biography in the beginning -- it's so interesting how he got to this country" and developed a number of successful restaurants.

Martha Royall's favorite book was also a gift. The owner of Taylor Royall Catering and Carryout Cuisine in Towson discovered it when she went to Nantucket with local cooking teacher Ann Grieves. "I pulled out this book, it's called 'Chopstix,' [Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1990, $32.50] by Hugh Carpenter, and I loved it so much she just gave it to me." Ms. Royall described the book as "marrying Mexican, Oriental and California cuisine. I have not seen a cookbook in a long time that I have been crazy about, this is the only one."

However, if she were giving a gift cookbook, she said, she would choose "The New Basics," by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, of Silver Palate fame (Workman, 1989, $29.95). "I love that cookbook. I think it's so enlightening. It's entertaining even if you don't want to cook."

Old favorites are also on the list for television personality Donna Hamilton, who is also the author of the new book, "Donna Hamilton's Gracious Country Inns & Favorite Recipes" (The Mockingbird Co. $24.94). "I love getting cookbooks" as gifts, she said, "because I really collect them." Among her best-loved cookbooks: "The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook," by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins with Sarah Leah Chase (Workman, $22.95); "Cucina Fresca," by Viana La Place (HarperCollins, $14, paperback); and "Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread," by Crescent Dragonwagon (Workman, 1992, $12.95).

A book by a post-Palate Ms. Rosso, "Great Good Food" (Crown, 1993, $29) is the favorite of Jean McHale, of Gaines-McHale Antiques in Otterbein. "It's got all of what you need to know about what you should be eating," she said. "I'm tired of foods that are the same-old same-old. I think people are looking for foods that are new and interesting."

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Foods that are hot and spicy are favorites for Ann Wilder, owner of Vann's spice company in Towson. "My first favorite is 'Burning Desires,' by W. Park Kerr, of the Old El Paso Chile Co.," she said. "I've tried a half-dozen or a dozen recipes from this book, and some are so good I've had them two or three times. My second favorite is 'Big Flavors of the Hot Sun,' [by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby]," she said, noting that she and the authors have "the same prejudice" about food: "That it ought to taste wonderful, and it ought to have a lot of flavor."

Her third favorite is "Madhur Jaffrey's Spice Kitchen," by Madhur Jaffrey (Random House, 1993, $15) -- "For obvious resons," she said. "It's got great information about spices."

As you might expect, professional chefs are rarely looking for simplicity when they pick out a cookbook. A current favorite of Jerry Edwards, owner, with his wife Judi, of Chef's Expressions catering in Timonium, is "Charlie Trotter's," by Chicago chef and restaurateur Charlie Trotter (Ten Speed Press, $39). Mr. Edwards said it's "the visuals" that appeal to him. "It's the most beautiful book of the year, from a chef's point of view." He also likes last year's "The Splendid Table," by Lynn Rossetto Kasper (William A. Morrow, 1993, $35) and -- "if you like garlic" -- "The Stinking Cookbook," by Jerry Dalbozzo, who owns the Stinking Rose restaurant in San Francisco (Celestial Arts, 1994, $9.95). "It uses garlic in really interesting ways," he says, "like garlic calzone, garlic chowder and garlic crab cakes."

Chef and restaurateur Donna Crivello, of Donna's restaurants and coffee bars, also liked the unexpected dishes offered in "Espresso: Culture and Cuisine," by Karl Petzke and Sara Slavin (Chronicle Books, $14.95). "It's a new little book about espresso, but it also has recipes in it . . . for using espresso in different ways, like poaching figs in espresso and serving them with duck," she said. She also likes "Panini, Bruschetta, Crostini," by Viana La Place (William Morrow, $20). And, she said, "I still love all of the Bugialli books," especially "Foods of Tuscany," by Giuliano Bugialli (Stewart Tabori & Chang, 1992, $50).

Spike Gjerde chef and owner, with his brother Charlie, of Spike and Charlie's restaurant, is fond of "Lulu's Provancal Table," by Richard Olney (HarperCollins, $35). "Richard Olney is the best living cookbook author there is," Mr. Gjerde said. He also likes "Chez Panisse Cooking," by Paul Bertolli with Alice Waters (Random House, 1988; new in paperback, 1994, $18). "It's about understanding food," he said. "I think all the best cookbooks try to cultivate an understanding -- you come to understand the nature of the ingredients and why you use one over the other." Reading or working from such a book means "you're totally enriched, because your understanding is enriched."

Michael Gettier, chef-owner of M. Gettier Restaurant in Fells Point, said he loves cookbooks. "I only have about 400. I'm a sucker for these things. They know where to send the fliers."

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Two of his current favorites are French imports -- not unexpected for the Paris-trained chef: "La Riviera d'Alain Ducasse," by 3-star Michelin chef Alain Ducasse of Monte Carlo (Albin Michel, $110); and "L'Envolee des Saveurs," by Bernard Loiseau, another 3-star Michelin chef on the Cote d'Azur (Michel Lafon, 1993, $80) (Both are only in French.)

But the book Mr. Gettier considers "one of the premier books in the last five to eight years" is "Simply French: Patricia Wells Presents the Cuisine of Joel Robuchon," by Patricia Wells (William A. Morrow, 1991, $35).

France is also the landscape for a favorite cookbook of Ann Brody, senior vice president for marketing for Sutton Place Gourmet, the Rockville-based chain of gourmet food and wine shops. She likes "Provence the Beautiful Cookbook," with recipes by Richard Olney and text by Jacques Gantie (HarperCollins, $45). "I think it's so pretty and the food photography is 1so appealing," Ms. Brody said. She also likes "James NcNair Cooks Italian" (Chronicle Books, $14.95).

When it comes to gifts, however, tops on her gift list is "The Way to Cook," by Julia Child (Random House, 1993, $60). "My kids all work, they all have babies," she said, so usually she gives them single-subject books -- "little books, not tomes." However, she said, "I gave them each a Julia book. Just so they'd have it on the shelf."

Anyone looking for a gift for Shirley Polikoff, co-chairman of the Baltimore/Maryland Chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food, might try "Graham Kerr's Kitchen" (G. P. Putnam's Sons, $21.95), a compendium of "recipes, tips and inspiration for making positive, creative, and delicious changes in the way you cook and eat." A caterer "highly recommended it," she says. "He uses a lot of food I like, like couscous." But Ms. Polikoff said that without such guidance, it can be hard to choose a cookbook as a gift, especially if it's for someone you don't know well. "It's absolutely the most difficult thing to buy . . . It's very personal."

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Here are recipes from two of the recommended cookbooks. The first is from "Fish," by Mark Bittman.

Curried Shrimp

Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil

2 large onions, minced

1 tablespoon curry powder

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1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

2 tablespoons minced cilantro (fresh coriander)

1 pound small new (or other waxy) potatoes, peeled and halved

2 cups canned or fresh tomatoes, with their liquid

salt to taste

1 pound medium to large shrimp, peeled and cut into halves or thirds

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2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Heat the oil over medium heat in a 12-inch skillet. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden. Add the curry powder, cayenne, and half the cilantro and stir. Add the potatoes, tomatoes, and salt, cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes. Add the shrimp and lemon juice and cook, uncovered, until the shrimp turn pink, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the remaining cilantro and serve with white rice.

The next recipe is from "Spur of the Moment Cook," by Perla Meyers. She notes with the recipe, "The secret to caramelizing onions quickly is to use plenty of oil and a pinch of sugar. Once the onions are well-browned, place them in a colander over a

bowl and drain them of excess oil."

Caramelized Onion Pilaf

Serves 6

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2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 large onions, peeled, quartered, and thinly sliced

salt and freshly ground black pepper

pinch of granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups Italian rice, preferably Arborio

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3 cups chicken bouillon or chicken stock

1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

GARNISH:

2 tablespoon finely minced fresh parsley

In a heavy 3-quart casserole, melt the butter together with the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and season with salt and pepper and a pinch of sugar. Cook 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until the onions begin to brown.

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Reduce the heat and cook, partially covered, until the onions are very soft and nicely browned, about 25 minutes.

Add the rice to the casserole and stir to blend well. Add the bouillon or stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, season with salt and pepper, and simmer, uncovered, for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the rice is tender.

Add the optional cream and the Parmesan and stir gently. Transfer to a serving bowl, sprinkle with the parsley, and serve hot.

COOKBOOK NOOKS

Although you can find the new and most popular cookbooks in regular bookstores, there are a number of places that specialize in cookbooks. A local source is Books for Cooks in the Light Street Pavilion of Harborplace, (410) 547-9066. There is also a Books for Cooks in Riverdale, N.Y. (231 W. 256th St., 10471); for a free catalog, call (800) 355-CHEF. Kitchen Arts and Letters, 1435 Lexington Ave., New York, N.Y., 10128, appeals to professional chefs. It sells books by mail order; call (212) 876-5550.



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