Italian Holiday Cooking by Michele Scicolone If you weren't lucky enough to grow up in an Italian household, this book will fill you with regret. Scicolone enthusiastically addresses such topics as the history of pecorino di fossa (which is aged underground) and the preparation of baccalà (dried salted cod). Her recipes are easy to follow and thorough; they range from a simpleand divinely richpolenta with soft cheese and browned butter to a stupendous porcini-stuffed zucchini and an exotic chocolate-and-eggplant dessert ($35).
The Naked Chef Takes Off by Jamie Oliver A confidence-inspiring charmer, Oliver constantly reminds us that cooking isn't an exact science and that, above all, it should be fun. He covers the basics as well as the more involved processes of pasta and bread making. Recipes range from pukkolla (a simple cereal of oatmeal, dried fruits and nuts, soaked overnight and served with fruitit's absolutely delicious) to Fantastic Fish Pie (it's even better)($35).
The All-American Cookie Book by Nancy Baggett Baggett traveled across the country to get historical and regional perspectives on a host of sweets: not just oatmeal and peanut-butter cookies but also Pennsylvania Dutch sugar cakes, Kentucky bourbon fruitcake balls and biscochitos (the state cookie of New Mexicowho knew?). Plus, there are whole chapters devoted to chocolate chip cookies, brownies and holiday baking. Baggett's recipe writing is clear and concise, and almost every cookie comes with a lovely story ($35).
The Last Course by Claudia Fleming The pastry chef of Manhattan's Gramercy Tavern, Fleming set out to bring restaurant-caliber desserts to the home kitchen, and with her new book she accomplishes her goal delightfully. Providing lots of helpful tips, Fleming covers the basics without any of the dumbing down that can make baking books so annoying. All the recipes, from espresso shortbread to buttermilk panna cotta, are appealing, with unexpected, ingenious twists ($35).
La Bella Cucina by Viana la Place In her essays on how Italians eat, La Place provides a wonderful sense of Italian life. Her recipes are so succinct (few run more than a page) that at first you may have some doubts about whether they work. They do. La Place's incredibly simple swordfish steaks patted with bread crumbs, parsley and garlic may change forever the way you cook swordfish. Her coffee granita, served with whipped cream, is so much like ice cream that even coffee haters may give in to its richness ($28).
Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Bastianich Engaging and no-nonsense, Bastianich provides historical and personal context for each recipe in this companion book to her latest PBS series. Even the most exacting nonna would find little to criticize in the oven-braised pork chops with red onions and pears (slightly time-consuming but absolutely worth it), or rice-stuffed tomatoes (a perfect marriage of classic ingredients: tomato, basil, mozzarella). Many recipes are lightened for modern palates, with a focus on fresh ingredients ($28).
Zarela's Veracruz by Zarela Martínez Part travelogue, part cookbook, this introduction to the geographically and agriculturally diverse Mexican state is a companion to the PBS series starring Martínez. Recipes vary from the simple to the involved. Among the former is a take on the Spanish classic shrimp with garlic; the shrimp is sautéed in a fragrant oil that has been blasted with 20 dried chiles, and the whole dish is ready in 10 minutes. There are also soups thickened, Spanish-style, with ground almonds or crushed stale bread, and chile limón, the lime and chile sauce that gives the simplest fish a Veracruzan pedigree ($35).
Second Helpings from Union Square Cafe by Danny Meyer and Michael Romano This latest from Meyer, restaurateur, and Romano, his Union Square chef and partner, has some rather quirky and amusing photographs (by Duane Michals) of patrons. And the recipes are delicious representatives of Romano's elegant yet soulful comfort food, with great tips. (For example, pitting olives can be a one-minute task if you crush them first with a meat mallet.) Try Romano's olive-stuffed lamb, his easy and incredibly flavorful roasted cauliflower with tomato and green olives, or his extraordinary chocolate chipoatmeal cookies ($35).
The Minimalist Cooks Dinner by Mark Bittman Culled from the hugely successful New York Times column by Bittman, this is a low-stress cookbook for busy people who love to entertain. Bittman focuses on dishes that require only a few ingredients, and he offers plenty of timesaving tricks. For his spicy shrimp appetizer and his divinely nuanced fish braised with leeks, you can start shopping at six and have dinner on the table by eight ($26).
The Baker's Dozen Cookbook edited by Rick Rodgers When a group of first-rate West Coast bakers decide to meet regularly to talk about baking issues (what to do about weeping meringue?), it's only natural that a cookbook should follow. This one is awesome, full of baking wisdom and 125 great recipes, from the old-fashioned and homey (buttermilk biscuits) to the elegant and updated (Meyer lemon chiffon cake). We have just one bone to pick: Where are the bios of the bakers? People that talented are worth learning more about ($40).