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Some of the year's best cookbooks

Some cookbooks make a great first impression; others promise to stick with you for the long haul. Here are some of the year's best.

"A Bird in the Oven and then Some" by Mindy Fox (Kyle, $24.95)

There aren't a lot of dishes that could support a whole book, but roast chicken richly merits this spiffy volume. Fox covers all the basics - types of birds, prepping, carving, seasoning - and then offers 20 precisely written recipes, including sea-salt roasted chicken with delectably crispy skin, and pot-roasted chicken with bacon, celery root and rosemary.

"Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies" by Alice Medrich (Artisan, $25.95)

Medrich's eighth cookbook asks: "What if cookies reflected our modern sensibility ... what if cookies were hip (but not too hip)?" The resounding answer is this well-designed collection of more than 300 recipes, organized by texture and including hazelnut sticks (crispy), snicker doodles (crunchy), spicy carrot masala macaroons (chewy), dairy-free rocky road squares (gooey), pecan tassies (flaky), chestnut-walnut macaroons (melt-in-your-mouth) plus 13 recipes for brownies.

"Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Time-Honored Ways are the Best" by Darina Allen (Kyle Books, $40)

Darina Allen, founder of the Ballymaloe cooking school in County Cork, has been called the Julia Child of Ireland - which isn't really accurate. Whereas Child introduced Americans to classic French cooking, Allen's brief is to remind the Irish of their own gorgeous, vanished foodways. Many of the more than 700 recipes draw on traditions other than Irish, but even the far-afield ones (pig's ear with radish) make for great reading. With evocative photography by Peter Cassidy.

"The Geometry of Pasta" by Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy (Quirk, $24.95)

Co-written by a graphic designer (Hildebrand) and restaurateur (Kenedy owns Bocca di Lupo in London), this idiosyncratic collection of 100 recipes expounds on the relationship between the shape of the pasta and the sauce best suited to it. The information is good, the recipes well written. But the real treats are the stunning black-and-white illustrations, featuring pasta shapes rendered as Op-Art. I wish I could wallpaper my kitchen with this book.

"Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food" by Paul Greenberg (Penguin, $25.95)

This highly readable book addresses the undeniable fact that if humans continue to consume fish, we will have to come up with alternatives to catching them in the wild. Aquaculture (fish farming) is the obvious alternative, but as currently practiced, it tends to wreak havoc on its surrounding environs and can use more edible resources than it produces. Greenberg tells his story with the help of salmon, sea bass, cod and tuna. Not a cookbook, but essential for anyone interested in sorting out the oceans of conflicting information about sustainable seafood.

"Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, With Authentic Recipes and Stories," by Grace Young (Simon & Schuster, $35)

Grace Young is one of today's very best cookbook authors. Her newest book is essential reading for anyone interested in Chinese cooking. Young, an American-born Chinese, goes deep into the art of stir-frying, providing recipes from all over China as well as from the far-flung communities of the Chinese diaspora - Macao, Malaysia, Singapore, the Caribbean, the Americas. The book also features color photos (by Steven Mark Needham) as well as myriad notes on history, culture and technique.

"Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys" by David Tanis (Artisan, $50).

Half the year, Tanis heads up the kitchen at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, the other half of the year, he lives in Paris, entertaining extremely lucky dinner guests. The book starts out with 14 simple recipe-ruminations that express - sometimes hilariously - Tanis' culinary philosophy of sensible simplicity. Then, he launches into menus for each of the four seasons and finishes with four feasts that serve upward of 15 people. This is one of those cookbooks you'll want to read in bed.

"Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes" by Mark Bitterman (Ten Speed, $35)

I was shocked to learn it's only in the last 150 years that salt production has become mechanized. Just as the diversified family farm has given way to industrial mono-agriculture, so "big salt" has obliterated most of small-scale saltworks that used to ... pepper the world. Writes Bitterman, "People are becoming more mindful of the foods they eat - organic vegetables, grass-fed beef. Salt is just one more ingredient that requires being thought of the same way." This illustrated volume changed the way I cook.

"A World of Cake: 150 recipes for Sweet Traditions from Cultures Near and Far" by Krystina Castella (Storey Publishing, $24.95)

A resolutely non-glamourous and highly unusual exploration of cakes in all their global glory. "Cakes can transport us anywhere in place or time," Castella writes, "from modern-day Tokyo to medieval England, from colonial Indonesia to ancient Egypt." In addition to the recipes are fascinating historical and cultural asides and graphic "family trees" conveying the relationships among the world's spongecakes, fried cakes, meringue cakes and jelly rolls.


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