When I first discovered the Dummies¨ series, I was deep in the dire depths of computer despair. I'm not sure they made me smart, but their right-on, jargonless approach saved me hours of heartache and headache. I was delighted to find that the "Dummies" had found their way into the world of cooking, and I'd be willing to bet that they can make cooks smarter in the kitchen. My favorite so far is the latest, Appetizers for Dummies (Wiley, $16.99, 242 pages, ISBN 0764554395) by Dede Wilson, with fabulous finger food ranging from fast to fancy, inexpensive to extravagant, appropriate whether you're setting the scene before the main event or throwing a cocktail party. I found a couple of the planning chapters particularly helpful, even after years of party giving: one on serving and set-up that includes calculating how much food to make; another on putting menus together, with a countdown to party time and ideas for upping the ante or scaling back. All of the 75 recipes have foolproof instructions, plus loads of chatty, truly helpful, often inspiring info in between. Starting with nifty nibbles like gussied-up nuts and popcorn, classics and dips by the dozen, the selections build in complexity. Next come canapŽs, crostini, tartlets, mini-muffins and hot hors d'oeuvres, including appetizer pizzas with enough toppings to tempt everyone you know. You can impress with international items from ceviche to stuffed grape leaves, or go for the formal plated appetizers or the formidable smoked salmon, caviar and foiegras. No dumbing down here you'll be up on star-quality starters.

From Dummies to Wiseguys I don't often include celebrity cookbooks, but I'm making an exception for The Sopranos Family Cookbook and, believe me, I didn't need any persuasion. The Sopranos have become family for the millions of fans who follow their weekly doings, which include indulging in hearty Italian-American fare, often prepared by the renowned New Jersey restaurateur Artie Bucco, chef/owner of Nuovo Vesuvio, favored by Tony and the boys. Artie not only welcomes you into his cucina, where food is la gioia di vivere and life itself, but brings you culinarily up close and personal with family members. Not that they're telling family secrets that could get us all in big trouble it's more like they're revealing the foodie within and remembering meals that meant a lot to them. Don't worry about what's real, who's real, what's TV what's the difference? No Mobster Lobster or Capon di Capo here, you get more than 100 great Neapolitan and Avellinese recipes (by Michele Scicolone, who is a very real, very good Italian food writer) and a sort of family food scrapbook, color photos and all. Corrado Soprano Jr., aka Uncle Jun, remembers "stuffing his face" with his Mama's Pasta Fazool in the winter and Giambotta, a fresh vegetable stew, in the summer. Carmela talks about Tony's favorites like Ziti al Forno with ricotta and little meatballs and Mom's Pear and Grappa Pound Cake. Tony advises on grilling Italian-style, Paulie Walnuts on Italian-American Food Speak and Bobby Bacala on the perfect cannoli, with added style tips for the wider-waistlined. Wherever you come from, Artie invites you to join him and all the Sopranos at the ever-popular Italian-American table.

Classics, old and new Donna Hay's cookbooks are gorgeous, extra-large format, sturdy paperbacks packed with scrumptious, sumptuous color photographs. They positively make you want to cook. Modern Classics Book 1 (Morrow, $24.95, 192 pages, ISBN 0060095245), the new beauty from this best-selling Australian food writer, has a specific agenda. Donna's gastronomic goal is to give timeless classics a new look, while preserving their old appeal and to spotlight new dishes that go beyond fad and five-minute fame to claim a place among "next-generation" classics. She starts with super soups, from a fabulous French Onion Soup to a Thai Chicken and Coconut Soup bursting with exotic flavors. And everything else follows: salads, fresh and clean; veggies, versatile and varied; roasts and simmers, from the simple elegance of a beef fillet to a masterful Moussaka; pasta, noodles and rice, indispensable and in style, whether it's Pad Thai, Lasagna or Lemon and Parmesan Risotto; savory pies and tarts, comforting, filling or downright thrilling. Between chapters are "Short Order" ideas for excellent accents and quick fixes. And if you're wondering what to do for dessert, hold on. Modern Classics Book 2 will be along later this year to satisfy your sweet tooth.

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