AP Food Editor
NEW YORK - It's a tough exercise in taste to choose food books to give as presents at this time of year, when publishers offer their best.
Their best tends to be their heaviest, glossiest and shiniest star-studded volumes - sometimes exactly the kind of book you'd never take into the kitchen and plop carelessly down beside the stove.
So here's a pared-down sampling of books published in late 2005, grouped into a few broad general types. Decorative or utilitarian, or both, some have recipes, some do not. Readers of the latter may savor them only from the comfort of an armchair - but the books will still have satisfied the hunger for knowledge.
n''Hungry Planet: What The World Eats'' by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio (Ten Speed Press, $40) grabs your attention for the startlingly varied stories it tells about how people feed themselves around the world. Its contents are based on detailed research, beautifully photographed, presented with often disturbing clarity.
Photographer Menzel and writer D'Aluisio introduce us to 30 families, representing every continent, each family photographed with the food they had for the week they were interviewed.
The household range is from the most affluent in the developed countries, among them a German family of four shown with $500 worth of food, to the neediest - for example, a family of six in a refugee camp in Chad, who spent just over $1 for tiny additions to their week's meager food rations. In between are families in widely differing situations, perhaps in cultural transition, or affected by rapid social change, poverty, conflict and globalization.
Roaming through 24 countries, from Australia to the United States, from Bhutan to Guatemala and the Philippines, Menzel and D'Aluisio profile each family and its community, local food sources and markets, and way of life, including family recipes.
Text and images complement nutrition professor Marion Nestle's evaluation in her foreword, where she sums up the book as ''a rich and thoughtful commentary on today's human condition.''
•''Mangoes and Curry Leaves'' by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Artisan, $45) is subtitled ''Culinary Travels Through the Great Subcontinent.''
In this latest venture in studying food in its cultural context, Alford and Duguid, accomplished travelers, writers and photographers who've been described as culinary anthropologists, focus on Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
After an overview of the subcontinent, they regale readers with about 200 recipes grouped in chapters ranging from chutneys, salsas and sambols, through main course items, to street foods, snacks and drinks, many illustrated in color photos.
They list menu recommendations for ''every occasion'' - including food to delight children, for a feast with guests, or favorites for a potluck.
You can learn about ingredients from a long, excellent glossary toward the back of the book. But all through earlier chapters you'll find stories, essays and photographs of local people, scenery and food markets that bring to life exotic flavors, tastes and customs.
•"Provence Harvest'' by Louisa Jones (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, $40) is another evocation of cuisine through words and pictures, this time of a region of France long celebrated for its lush countryside and bountiful food and wine.
The Canadian-born Jones has lived in Provence for some 30 years, and her observations on country life, customs, history and food are complemented with 40 recipes from Jacques Chibois, an acclaimed Provencal chef.
Jones praises Chibois' respect for gardening and farming, his knowledge of where food comes from and what happens to it along the way. ''In this book,'' she says, ''we have tried to present growers, gardeners, and small-scale processors who resist the pressure of standardization'' and some of whom are struggling to survive. ''We can, we must, join up with others all over the planet who want, as we do, to preserve local flavor and character,'' she writes.
•''Seasonal Southwest Cooking'' by Barbara Pool Fenzl (Northland, $35) puts a colorful range of regional food within reach of cooks anywhere, with 150 recipes grouped under conventional headings that include appetizers, soups, entrees and so on, through breads and desserts.
But the ''seasonal'' angle in the title is a guiding principle of the book. Fenzl opens with a month-by-month listing of dishes for occasions to cook for, a Valentine's soiree in February, for example, a Fourth of July picnic, or a holiday open house in December.
Fenzl, host of the PBS series ''Savor the Southwest,'' has lived in Phoenix for some 36 years and runs a cooking school there - experiences that are reflected in her clear recipes' regional flavor. After a fall hike in the woods, she says, think of black bean soup with lime cream, followed by spice-rubbed buffalo tenderloin with porcini butter. Something simpler for a hearty but healthy January meal: a vegetarian ''you'll-never-miss-the-meat'' chili, well laced with flavor.
Fine food photography by Christopher Marchetti that accompanies the recipes is rivaled by other photos throughout the book: panoramas of Southwestern scenery and wilderness landmarks including some eye-catching double-page spreads - disappointingly, with no captions.
Cooks' reference, at length
•"The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook'' (America's Test Kitchen, $34.95) is a weighty big-statistic production. Inside the very sturdy cover on some 848 ring-bound pages are more than 1,200 recipes and 1,500 photos, efficiently seasoned with tips, explanations and comparisons, product ratings, cookware descriptions and ingredient glossaries.
That's the thorough, no-nonsense way the editors and cooks of the bimonthly magazine Cook's Illustrated do things, both in the magazine and on their public television show, ''America's Test Kitchen.''
•''Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook'' (Potter, $40) is conventionally bound, elegantly designed, and also packed with well-presented information to complement some 200 recipes.
The book is organized into general categories of baking, such as cookies, cakes, or pies, tarts, cobblers and crisps. Clearly and stylishly laid-out color photos are like glimpses into the glass cases of the best bakery you know. The recipes range from graham crackers to a spectacular three-tier wedding cake, from carrot-ginger cupcakes to cherry-frangipane galette, from banana cream pie to pizza.
Plenty of how-to photo series trace baking procedures for nervous neophytes hoping for the kind of results Martha Stewart's kitchens get.
•''The Cook's Book'' edited by Jill Norman (DK, $50) promises techniques and tips from ''the world's master chefs.'' Among Americans named in this category are Charlie Trotter and Rick Bayless. Other chefs representing the world's cuisines include Parisian patissier Pierre Herme, Ken Hom on Chinese food, and Spain's Ferran Adria.
The flavor here is cosmopolitan, with some European overtones; most measurements for the recipes are given in conventional American terms, with metric alternatives included. Looking at the numbers: On the book's 648 pages, you'll find 350 ''essential techniques,'' about 650 recipes, and 1,800 photographs.