For the past four years Fran McCullough has culled thousands of recipes from books, magazines, newspapers and the Internet to come up with an annual compilation of the best. This year's winners are in The Best American Recipes 2002-2003(Houghton Mifflin, $26, 352 pages, ISBN 0618191372), edited by McCullough and Molly Stevens, with a fabulous foreword by the inimitable Anthony Bourdain and once again it's a treasure and a pleasure. The editors don't agonize over what constitutes the best. Their philosophy is simple: A best recipe is, in the end, a keeper. And I'd add to that a bit of kitchen wisdom I picked up from a pro: If you find one or two recipes in a cookbook to add to your permanent repertoire, it's a cookbook worth having. And I'd bet the farm (and a pound of Sevruga caviar) that you'll find many more than two permanent keepers here. There's so much to choose from: super-simple Garlicky Sun-Dried Tomato Spread; velvety, versatile Creamy Carrot Parsnip Soup; Crunchy Sugar Snap Pea and Prosciutto Salad; holiday-perfect, caramel-topped Morning Bread Pudding; deep-flavored, tender Italian Beef Stew; quick, satisfying Vietnamese Scallion Noodles; Green Pea Risotto that serves as a main or a sumptuous side; divine, dense Intense Chocolate Torte; and many, many more, each accompanied by wine and serving suggestions. The recipes come from the renowned and the anonymous, but they all celebrate the magic of cooking and the magic of sharing the resplendent results. Simply Sara Sara Moulton started putting her first cookbook together without an overall plan. But, as she gathered treasured recipes for Sara Moulton Cooks at Home (Broadway, $29.95, 352 pages, ISBN 0767907701) and selected those best suited to home cooks, she realized that she was, in fact, writing her culinary autobiography and preserving her culinary heritage. And this is a life worth eating! Sara spent her childhood in New York City with easy access to all kinds of foreign cuisines, went to the Culinary Institute and had an apprenticeship in France. She worked with Sally Darr and Jacques Pepin when she came home and went on to Gourmet magazine as chef for its elegant dining room. Busier than ever, Sara has a new series on the Food Network, Sara's Secrets, and remains the food editor for Good Morning America. This girl loves food, loves to eat, loves to cook and, luckily, loves to share that love with us. There are more than 200 recipes here for dishes you can get on the table with a minimum of fuss during the hustle and bustle of the workweek and some slightly more lavish preparations for entertaining. For example, four fabulous Quick Chicken Recipes, all prepared with pounded chicken breasts, simply seasoned and sauced are fast, sure-fire family favorites, while Thai-Roasted Cornish Game Hens, served with Stir-Fried Carrots and Peanuts will delight your dinner guests. Sara supplies wonderfully informative, chatty headnotes for each recipe, more extensive and more fun than most, and offers the kinds of tips on relevant tools, techniques and shortcuts that can make you a happier, smarter cook.

Tempting traditions Another Italian cookbook? PerchŽ no? There's always a steady stream of cookbooks with Italian themes and there always seems to be a ready audience. I see lots of them, some ordinary, some extraordinary, some authentic and some so far from la vera cucina Italiana that you could be eating pasta alla Mickey D's. Micol Negrin's new Rustico: Regional Italian Country Cooking, informative, authentic and packed with extraordinary recipes, is an Italian cookbook to save and savor. Italy wasn't unified until 1861, and each area's fierce dedication to its local customs, from dialect to dining, are still strong, though inevitably endangered. Micol, who grew up eating her mother's masterful Milanese cooking, deeply appreciates the wonderfully wide regional variations found in Italian fare and is doing her best to keep these traditions alive. Delving deep in her gastronomic research, she has combed the 20 regions of this small (less than half the size of Texas), deliciously diverse country for the well-known and the lesser-known dishes each region holds dear to its culinary heart. You'll find welcome favorites like Veal Scalopinne alla Bolognese, Panzanella, Caponata and Scampi Risotto, and the more unusual, rosemary-scented Roasted Lamb and Oyster Mushrooms, Pork Braciole with Raisins and Capers, Smoked Eggplants in Mint-Basil Oil and Chocolate-Covered Roasted Figs all gems to ornament and brighten your own cooking repertoire.

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