Food & Drink: The best of the rest: volumes of good cheer

Real Fast Food by Nigel Slater (Michael Joseph, pounds 14.99). Easily my first choice for a simple, good, workable and readable cookery book to give as a present this Christmas. Mr Slater's forceful enthusiasm and lack of affectation (any man who is not afraid to say that bacon sandwiches are best made with 'plastic bread' has my vote) together with his lusty talent for the right, biteable idea ensure this is a book that will neither offend the seasoned cook nor inhibit the nervous novice, although the ideal reader is probably someone in between.

The format is simple: 350 recipes that take up to 30 minutes to make, expounded with directness and the sort of gleeful evocation that makes your stomach rumble. Grilled chicken with muscat wine and thyme, mackerel teriyaki, caramelised onion and parsley frittata: this is, as the title promises, real food, both substantial and satisfying.

Classic Foods of China by Yan-kit So (Macmillan, pounds 25). Yan-kit So's first book won both the Glenfiddich and Andre Simon awards for 1984 and established her as the foremost exponent of Chinese cookery writing in English today. This book, too, provides intensely pleasurable reading - about the history and traditions that have shaped the wide range of Chinese cooking - and offers a radiantly clear guide to the preparation of Chinese food which is at once understandable and inspirational for the Western cook.

Look & Cook series by Anne Willan (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 10.99 each). A new series which sets out to make cooking fear- and failure-free. The six titles in this batch tackle, respectively, Perfect Pasta, Chicken Classics, Meat Classics, Main Dish Vegetables, Chocolate Desserts and Fruit Desserts.

Ms Willan is the founder of the noted Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris and her output so far shows that she is a teacher to be trusted.

There is, surprisingly, a distinct naff tendency evident in the recipes included, particularly in the volumes on desserts (fruit salad served in a scooped-out melon shell, the old Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte) but this is more than outweighed by the careful depiction of technique and procedure. Any of these would be ideal for children eager to learn how to cook on their own.

The Feast of Christmas by Paul Levy (Kyle Cathie, pounds 9.99). The paperback of the Channel 4 series. The origins of what we have come to accept as Christmas traditions are considered in sprightly fashion and distinctly untraditional recipes - Ken Hom's Christmas Roast Duck Peking-Style, Claudia Roden's Moroccan Almond Snake - are offered alongside slightly more familiar fare. What sets it apart, however, is its entertaining historical approach, which snatches the story out from behind each seasonal ingredient.

Jane Grigson's English Food (Ebury Press, pounds 18.99) and The Best of Jane Grigson (Michael Joseph, pounds 18.99). Jane Grigson was working on a new edition of her 1974 title before she died, and the considerably revised and updated English Food, published posthumously, is a poignant reminder of her contribution to the subject. The anthology of her work is a must-buy for those who, inexplicably, do not feel the need to own each of her volumes

individually.

Dining With Proust by Jean-Bernard Naudin, Anne Borrel and Alain Senderens (Ebury Press, pounds 19.99). The great French chef Senderens provides the recipes, Borrel the sometimes precious narrative, and Naudin the grandiose photographs in this handsome coffee-table book, which rather enjoyably (if, at times, somewhat preposterously) luxuriates in the flavours and senses evoked by Proust's work and time. Have lunch with the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes or dinner with Robert de Saint-Loup: the perfect present for those whose tastes are of a literary bent.

Pacifica Blue Plates by Neil Stuart (distributed by the Airlift Book Company, pounds 15.95). Many of the ingredients in this ebullient American book might not be easily available over here, and our climate may not be best suited to the dishes but, for those who like reading cookery books rather than travel brochures (or, indeed, rather than travelling), this is the stuff of sunny escapism. Mr Stuart, a restaurateur in San Diego, has formulated what he names the Pacific Southwest style of cooking, which is roughly one part California, one part Mexico and one part don't-ask eclecticism. Caribbean crabcakes with sweet lime salsa, grilled seafood sausage with roasted garlic butter and grilled beef steak marinated in beer are some of the dishes you just might want to try, all the same. Puddings are excellent.

(Photograph omitted)

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