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Cookbook selections from the latest stock. American food, herb cookery, Transylvanian cuisine

COOKBOOKS are not just for cooking anymore. Today's newest cookbooks have dazzling photographs, stylish lettering, and glorious color. There are plenty to choose from for holiday giving. Those about American food seem to be the newest trend, but there are plenty of ethnic books and others on specific kinds of food. The history, manners, and chemistry of food are also grist for the cookbook writer's mill.

Glorious American Food, by Christopher Idone (Random House, $50), is one of the big expensive books with dramatic photographs of beautiful food.

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``The photographs were taken all over the country, but presentation is really the heart of the book,'' Idone says. ``Today what food looks like is as important as the taste, especially when people are being entertained.''

There are scenes of oyster roasts in the colonial South, with a menu of recipes for Hopping John, Collard Greens, and Glazed Country Cured Ham. A chuckwagon beef dish, Blue Corn Pancakes, Squash Blossom Soup, and a coconut dessert are shown served before a beehive fireplace in a Southwestern home.

The Gardner Museum Cookbook, by Lois Conroy (Harvard Common Press, Boston, $8.95 paper), has recipes from the Boston caf[fs1]'e that's tucked into the corner of this celebrated museum.

Chef Lois Conroy serves attractive, elegant dishes at the restaurant, such as Tomato-Lentil Soup with Cinnamon, Smoked Scallop Pie, and Gingered Cream of Carrot Soup. The museum itself has a uniquely presented art collection, weekly free concerts, and lush indoor courtyard gardens like those of 15th-century Venice.

Along with art photos, the cookbook has a few interesting informal photographs of Isabella Gardner and friends.

In spite of all the new cookbooks on a particular type of food, the general all-purpose cookbook is still the most popular kind of cookbook owned today, according to a recent Gallup survey.

How many cookbooks can one person use? Women who live in the Western part of the United States buy 9.1 hard-cover cookbooks, more than women in any other area of the country buy, the Gallup survey found. The average number of cookbooks bought by women in the rest of the country adds up to six.

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The New Doubleday Cookbook, by Jean Anderson and Elaine Hanna (Doubleday, $16.95), fills a need for that general all-purpose book quite well with its more than 4,000 recipes -- from familiar American classics to the newer, slightly exotic dishes.

Author Jean Anderson says that ``compared with the edition of 10 years ago, this one has more recipes using whole-grain and high-fiber breads and pastas. There is greater emphasis on vegetables and fresh fruits and on chicken and seafood rather than red meat.'' This is the new standard in basic American cookbooks.

Herbs, Gardens, Decorations, and Recipes, by Emilie Tolley and Chris Mead (Clarkson N. Potter, $30), is an unusually beautiful guide book to herbs, with ideas from talented and innovative gardeners, cooks, and craft people.

Ms. Tolley expresses her philosophy that herbs have the capacity to delight the senses and enhance not just foods but all aspects of today's living.

Chris Mead has photographed food, gardens, decorations, and handsome herbal scenes of a master chef's hillside garden in Provence, France; a Virginia family herb farm; formal English gardens; kitchen gardens on Cape Cod and Nantucket; and a California hillside landscaped with rosemary.

The book includes directions for making wreaths, potpourris, bouquets, and herb standards as well as recipes for delicious and attractive dishes and directions for herb growing and drying. It also has an excellent directory of herb shops and gardens in the United States and England.

Although there are many cookbooks on American food this season, ethnic and foreign foods have by no means been neglected.

Paul Kovi's Transylvanian Cuisine, by Paul Kovi, edited by Kim Honig (Crown Publishers Inc. $15.95), combines history, gastronomy, legend, and lore from Mr. Kovi's homeland.

Part recipes, part good reading with a fair amount of poetry and verse, the book traces the Hungarian, Armenian, Romanian, Saxon-German, and Jewish influences in the foods of the region.

The Transylvanians -- because of their unique social, historical, and geographical background -- have developed and kept a remarkable culinary entity -- both colorful and gastronomically interesting.

Mr. Kovi's book has recipes for such dishes as lentils with tarragon vinegar, lamb with eggs and mint, poultry with ginger, goose with sauerkraut and basil, and honey cakes as well as a simple recipe for green beans called Saxon Sour Beans.

Penelope Casas traveled all over Spain collecting recipes for her book Tapas, the Little Dishes of Spain (Alfred A. Knopf, $22.95 hard cover, $12.95 paperback). Tapas are a kind of appetizer, also called little ``bites,'' which fall right into the new American craze of nibbling throughout the day -- otherwise known as grazing.

The book is divided into different styles of preparation, with sections on tapas in sauces, marinades, and salads; tapas with pastry or bread; and tapas that are fried or grilled.

Tapas are ideal as unusual party food, snacks, or small amounts of assorted foods served instead of a traditional meal.

The Fun of Cooking, by Jill Krementz (Alfred A. Knopf, $14.95), has delightful pictures of boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 16 as they cook and share their favorite and easy recipes. The recipes take the reader through step-by-step preparation of everything from chocolate mousse cake to matzo-ball soup, granola, cucumber sushi, and lemon chicken.

Each child has his or her own reasons for cooking and shares his own particular cooking habits and hints for the reader; all of the children have one thing in common -- the enjoyment of cooking for fun.

The Enlightened Cuisine, by Rene' Verdon with Rachel H. Norman (Macmillan Publishing Company, $19.95), is a superb up-to-date guide to contemporary French cooking by San Francisco's outstanding French chef, who is owner of Le Trianon Restaurant.

Chef Verdon blends the best of traditional cuisine with the new American emphasis on fresh foods and quicker preparation, still retaining the integrity of classic French cuisine.

The cookbook introduces a sophisticated way of cooking with a lighter approach and has helpful drawings by Jacqueline Mallorca.

Three charming children's cookbooks related to familiar storybook characters are The Louisa May Alcott Cookbook, compiled by Gretchen Anderson and illustrated by Karen Milone (Little Brown & Co., Boston, $10.95), The Beatrix Potter Cookery Book, by Margaret Lane (Viking/Frederick Warne Ltd., London, 1983), and Arabella Boxer's The Wind in the Willows Country Cookbook (Charles Scribner's Sons, $13.95).

If you get the idea that cookbooks are selling tremendously well, you might like to think about purchasing The Way to Write and Publish a Cookbook, by Doris McFerran Townsend (St. Martin's Press, $8.95). It tells you everything you might want to know about the process, from the tricks of food photography to how to find an agent and how to publicize yourself.

Or perhaps your interest would be more in the line of cooking for some extra money, which is explained in Catherine Harris's book Cash From Your Kitchen, a Complete Guide to Catering (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, $16.95, hard cover).

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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