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Tasty Reads 

Our restaurant critic offers some food for thought while shopping for the right holiday gift.

'Tis not only the season for harried shopping, reams of gift wrap and stiff eggnog, but also for short days, cold nights and way too much channel surfing. Some new releases and others timeless, the books listed below will help foodies naughty or nice pass the extra time indoors. Try one on a friend who appreciates tucking in with a literary feast, or break open a new cookbook and fire up the oven yourself.

A collection of recipes can be the most intimate memoir, revealing a cook's life and heart in the most visceral way: by laying down the particulars of how she feeds her family, herself and, in the case of Abby Fisher, her employers. What Mrs. Abby Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (Applewood Books, $8.95), first published in 1881 and re-published seven years ago, is the dearest book I've run across this year. Abby Fisher is believed to have been a former slave; since she could neither read nor write, prominent friends transcribed this work. A sure, feminine voice runs throughout the 160 recipes, including 30 on pickles and preserves. Philip Lamancusa has stocked a few extra copies of this one in his Rampart Street cookbook store, Kitchen Witch.

Jamie Oliver, the baby-faced Emeril of England, has a new cookbook out, Happy Days With the Naked Chef (Hyperion, $34.95), that promises the same brand of simple, high-comfort recipes found in last year's The Naked Chef Takes Off (Hyperion, $34.95). Think spaghetti with salami, fennel and tomatoes; fresh figs with Parma ham and buffalo mozzarella. Unlike last year's photo essay of the rosy-lipped chef alone, this one gives almost equal face-time to his new wife. While there's definite sex appeal in his messy cooking style and fast-paced television program, "naked" refers to Oliver's penchant for preparations that bare the true flavors of fresh ingredients ­ he seasons primarily with just salt, pepper and herbs.

In Chez Panisse Fruits (Harper Collins, $34.95), California's most renowned chef and small farmer advocate Alice Waters takes a similar "naked" approach to sweet and savory fruit recipes, like Peach Melba and Moroccan Chicken with Dates. As in Chez Panisse Vegetables (Harper Collins, $24.95), chapters begin with general information about fruit varieties and seasonality; full-color linocuts make it one of the most attractively understated cookbooks on the market.

Anthony Bourdain, the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in New York City, got famous -- or infamous -- with Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Ecco Press, $24.95 hardcover; $14 paperback), a book about the dark workings of restaurant kitchens. Written with the same bad-boy irreverence for etiquette and genuine respect for cooks, A Cook's Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines (Ecco Press, $25.95 hardcover; $14.95 paperback), is based upon his travels for the Food Network program of the same name. He eats sea cucumber dipped in its own liver in Tokyo and reindeer braised with juniper in Russia, though his largest appetite is for booze and cigarettes. (A telling fact: Bourdain's favorite place in New Orleans is Snake And Jake's.)

Through essays written by environmental-minded academics, farmers and chefs, Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (Island Press, $75 hardcover; $45 paperback) provides a sometimes terrifying and sometimes hopeful assessment of the current state of American agriculture. Edited by Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, it critiques the modern-day approach to food and offers solutions; an entire section is devoted to the history and future of the organic movement. The price is due to its heft (weightier than a family Bible); with 250 color photographs, it's both coffee-table book and commentary.

Straight Up Or on the Rocks : The Story of the American Cocktail (North Point Press, $20) is the perfect gift for anyone who survives the holidays with the help of a cocktail shaker. New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes offers an update of his 1993 release, outlining the history of the cocktail with a scientist's exactitude and vermouth-dry wit. It's worth owning for the 34 recipe pages alone.

I know Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26 hardcover; $15 paperback) was the darling of 2001's holiday season. Still, if you enjoy the sentimental cynicism of modern literature, and if close to 200 luscious pages detailing the handiwork of a female chef (and her affair with her boss' wife) appeals to you or to someone you love, it's just as brilliant this year.

Southern food writers have their say in the first edition of Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing (University of North Carolina Press, $16.95). Times-Picayune writers Brett Anderson and Lolis Eric Elie contribute stories about a memorial meal at Galatoire's and Dooky Chase's chef-owner, Leah Chase, respectively. Other essays cover the politics of South Carolina barbecue, watermelon farming and a contrarian's view on the South's iced-tea obsession.

Leah Chase is also the subject of a biography by Carol Allen, a former superintendent of elementary schools in New Orleans and a current part-time resident. Besides the intriguing chronological details of the nearly 80-year-old chef's life, Leah Chase: Listen I Say Like This (Pelican, $23) provides Chase's unedited observations on art, politics, education, family and faith. Recipes like Gumbo des Herbes, Butter Cake and Wild Ducks and Turnips appear throughout the book.

When the Junior League of New Orleans published it two years ago, The Crescent City Collection: A Taste of New Orleans ($26.95) rounded out a trinity of cookbooks. (The first, Plantation, was published in 1972, Jambalaya in 1980.) The 250 hard-bound pages contain color photographs of decorator show houses as well as contributions from citizens and chefs. The recipes, some classic and some contemporary, reflect this sentiment from the preface: "No one truly owns a home or a recipe in the Crescent City; we are simply their custodians." Whether Gabrielle Chef-owner Greg Sonnier owns or is custodian of the recipe for Slow-Roasted Duck with Orange Sherry Sauce, I'm sure glad he submitted it.

The best way to test the quality of a dessert is to eat it when you're already full. That's the excuse I use, at least, and that's the state I was in when I took the first bite of chocolate pudding at Home, a restaurant in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. There's nothing to say about this chocolate pudding, except that it was perfect. Recipes From Home (Artisan, $30) turns out many other near-perfect dishes, from oatmeal to cheddar biscuits. Some of the preparations (porgies wrapped in grape leaves, for example) are a little precious, but there's plenty for any home cook to drool over within the 420 pages. The pudding recipe doesn't specify this, so scribble it in: serve with fresh whipped cream.

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