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Booked Up

Diza stuffs her face with food for thought.

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'Tis one of my favorite times of the year, when I get to take a week off from the grueling schedule of visiting restaurants, making nice, tasting and writing, and always striving to be brutally honest. Now, for a whole week I get to sift through bookshelves, and assemble the finalist list for all those tuned-in foodies who are too damn lazy to do it for themselves. For those of you still compiling your Christmas lists, should you have a shy or budding gourmand who has you stumped, give the gift he's probably too shy to ask for or buy for himself: a cookbook.

As a first course, start with The Daily Soup Cookbook by Leslie Kaul (Hyperion, $17.95). There are quite a few theories about soup, why it is such an elemental, satisfying dish, why we hold memories of certain bowls, and why a restaurant dedicated to the art of the soup has become such a wild success. The answer is fairly obvious: Most people crave comfort. And what could be more comforting than a bowl of soup made with lots of love? Well, possibly cooking a pot of soup for someone you love.

Those good folks at the renowned Daily Soup have assembled their most frequently requested soup recipes and compiled them neatly just for you. This book is easy to read and is organized around the essential ingredients to build a soup. There are sections titled Tomato, Corn, Potato, Rice. But don't be lulled by the simplicity in the titles; these are über soups, soups that will seduce you into sitting right down and assembling a grocery list: Moroccan Lamb Stew, Jamaican Pumpkin, Polenta and Red Bean Soup ... . These are soups you not only want to eat, you want to spend an afternoon adrift with the bubbling kettle.

Inserts alert you to what movies to rent while you eat soup (Eraserhead with Cream of Lentil, Babe with Braised Pork Chili with Black Beans and Corn) or what songs to listen to (David Byrne's "Road to Nowhere" with the Bahian Seafood Stew or the B52s with Pineapple Shrimp soup).

There is much charm to be found in this book, except for the up-close and personal black-and-white photographs of people savoring soup: soup dripping down their faces, food in their teeth, mouths wide open. But this vaguely repulsive book design holds one kind of appeal: No one will bother stealing it from you.

If you are a Gary Paul Nabhan fan, then you might have already picked up his newest book, Coming Home to Eat (W.W. Norton, $24.95). If you aren't a convert, you're in for a treat as Nabhan's lyrical and often moving observations on people, plants and place are all seamlessly woven into his latest opus. In response to dire global food politics, Nabhan spends a year devoted to eating only foods grown, gathered and prepared within a 200-mile radius of his home here in the Sonoran Desert. At times political treatise, other times historical documentation, Nabhan weaves his personal narrative with an eye toward making the personal political, and the politics of food as a global meditation on finding sustenance in your own backyard.

In direct contrast, Anthony Bourdain's new release, A Cook's Tour (Bloomsbury, $25.95), follows this irreverent chef as he unleashes his appetites in a global search for "the perfect meal." If you read and liked Bourdain's surprise runaway bestseller, Kitchen Confidential, then you'll probably enjoy his latest attempt. The same self-absorbed, abrasive testosterone-driven narratives whirl the reader through many diverse landscapes: from Cambodia to St. Petersburg, Glasgow to Napa Valley.

Bourdain delights in ferreting out the most daunting and terrifying foods he can manage to choke down. Alternately hilarious and annoying, Bourdain's unfiltered glimpses into other worlds are ultimately compelling. It is hard to escape the driving neuroses that won Bourdain his adoring fans the first time around. Who else can be simultaneously appalled at the murder of so many innocent animals at his behest, then sit down and slurp up the baby lamb's freshly roasted testicles or the cobra's still beating heart? If you want to voyage out into the world and live life vicariously through America's brassy, self-aggrandizing bad-boy chef, or if you know people who like to travel without ever leaving the armchair, this book is for you and yours.

If you've ever wondered exactly why onions make you cry or why turning out a flaky pie dough strikes fear into the most seasoned bakers, Russ Parsons' How to Read a French Fry (Houghton Mifflin, $25) is for you. Parsons, the food editor of the Los Angeles Times, employs a highly readable and humorous touch by way of explaining the "why" behind basic cooking techniques. The book's format is highly readable and the text is often funny; the chapter "Fear, Fat and Flour" will lead the most pie crust-challenged person to a more perfect dough. The book's sensible layout acknowledges common fears, then provides a succinct scientific explanation of how techniques work (why eggs emulsify, what happens when meats roast). Practical recipes put these into practice and reveal what heretofore might have been a mystery.

The beauty behind the book is that once you've mastered basic techniques, you won't need any cookbooks at all; you'll be on your way to mastering the kitchen. This is a great book to give for anyone who either labors under the delusion that they can't cook or who secretly hopes that one day they might be a chef.

Raw: The Uncook Book by Juliano (Regan, $35) is the book to give to someone who has no desire to cook, ever. The self-acclaimed guru of the raw cuisine movement, Juliano (his last name is Brotman) shocked critics and restaurateurs alike when he opened shop with a few blenders and food dehydrators and claimed to have invented (read rediscovered) an ancient way of joining the planet: by eating raw foods. Once food is hotter than 120 degrees, it loses its vitality and nutritional values. This book explores the preparations of foods in endlessly inventive and colorful recipes. Never mind that you might have to use a food dehydrator for eight hours; you, too can eat "raw" pizza, burritos and pasta. An unusual and useful reference book for any vegetarian in your life who might be bored, not fully energized or in need of a little renewal.

If you are in the market for a book that takes the time to explain the basic concepts and key ingredients in Mexican cuisine, Rick Bayless' Mexico One Plate at a Time (Scribner, $35) is a keeper. Bayless' infectious enthusiasm and ability to anticipate basic questions and provide ample answers makes this book indispensable. With carefully detailed recipes, small travel anecdotes and narrative snippets, Bayless takes the reader on a thoroughly explained tour of the cuisines of Mexico. Christmas won't find you without a platter of genuine tamales or a pot of posole cheerfully bubbling on the stove.

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