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 marinière) 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."
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 Gruyère) and obscenely good.
Vongerichten's "Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges" is more gorgeous but just as approachable. His seared tuna, coated with Sichuan peppercorns and sauced with a simply sublime combination of Dijon mustard and soy sauce, is the quintessence of his approach to ingredients, and it takes minutes to make.
I also took ridiculous liberties with his steamed cod with caramelized onion, ginger and scallions and still got a sensational fast dinner with deftly layered flavors. This book is a keeper for other tempting recipes, too: monkfish with tandoori spices and tomato chutney; coconut panna cotta; duck "sticks" fried in egg roll wrappers, and an Asian gravlax.
A different kind of fusion is on display in "Crescent City Cooking" by Susan Spicer (with Paula Disbrowe), whose style is proof that New Orleans remains America's most vibrant melting pot: She mixes and matches ingredients and ideas from all over the world to make food that seems distinctly local. Consider her smart reinvention of pesto using pumpkin seeds, roasted garlic, cilantro and feta, which I could eat by the spoonful. And given that her po' boy recipe calls for andouille sausage rather than anything as complicated as fried oysters, I can almost forgive her a disastrous butternut squash spoon bread soufflé.
For the future, grated carrots with lemon and walnut oil are calling my name, as are garlic confit, smoked duck and andouille gumbo and a great-sounding polenta gratin with very garlicky vegetables and an extravagance of Val d'Aosta cheese.
In the same way Vongerichten and Spicer reinterpret ideas from Asia and New Orleans, respectively, Hari Nayak and Vikas Khanna put their own spin on the food of the subcontinent in "Modern Indian Cooking." The two young chefs, who founded Cooking for Life, an organization that raises money for various causes through culinary events, make a complex cuisine seem totally accessible with pared-down recipes and gorgeous photographs.
Maybe because their ideas sounded so fresh, I got a little carried away and tried their carrot and cucumber salad with spiced mustard dressing, duck vindaloo and spiced almond cookies with great success before pushing my luck with a chocolate cake with dates and cardamom that was more a chocolate soup with faint flavorings.
Sublime garlic noodles
"THE Seventh Daughter" by Bay Area legend Cecilia Chiang also pares recipes to their simplest. No less a culinary icon than Alice Waters describes Chiang as a "role model, mentor and an inspiration" in this "culinary journey from Beijing to San Francisco." Chiang's story is gripping; call her the accidental restaurateur, one who lived through huge changes in China before traveling to San Francisco to cheer up her widowed sister and staying to revolutionize Chinese cuisine in the United States.
Although many Chinese cookbooks have gotten more detailed in search of authenticity, Chiang's makes the food as accessible as 1970. Her garlic noodles are just the two billed ingredients, plus oil, soy sauce and oyster sauce, but taste like a million, while the "three-shredded salad" of cucumber, carrots and daikon with pungent dressing was the perfect counterpoint. I'd come back for the star anise-flavored peanuts, the spinach in sesame seed paste or the coconut tapioca pudding.
"Sweet Myrtle & Bitter Honey" by Texas restaurateur Efisio Farris is a different trip, this one to the wilds of his native Sardinia via seductive photos and recipes you won't find in just any cookbook even as Italy becomes one well-worn boot. Labored love is lavished on ingredients, history and family tales; as an acquaintance noted, if you want six ways to eat the cured fish roe called bottarga, this is your book.
As for my fast dates with it, greens with pancetta were satisfying; honeyed orange rinds with toasted almonds were teeth-endangering.
But the book that will be hanging around my coffee table if not my kitchen counter into the new year is "My Last Supper," photographer Melanie Dunea's exploration of what famous chefs in the U.S. and abroad would want to eat before calling it a life.
The portraits are compelling, the text thoughtful, and there are even a handful of recipes in the back. Gary Danko's, for buckwheat blini, promises a yield of 25 but makes enough to keep St. Petersburg in crème fraîche and smoked salmon. Fortunately, worse things happen with real cookbooks.