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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Maybe the economic crisis means you're eating out less or simplifying the meals you cook at home more. Well, times might be lean, but food writer Susie Chang says your dinnertime options don't have to be.

For today's Three Books segment, that's where writers pick three books on one theme, Chang recommends three cookbooks with simple tantalizing recipes that will not break the bank.

SUSAN CHANG: I'm sure you know the story of the hungry beggar who arrives in a miserly village with nothing but a kettle. He drops an ordinary stone in the kettle, adds some water and calls it stone soup. It's delicious, he cries to the gathering crowd. Now, if only I had an onion.

SIEGEL: savory, aromatic and generous enough to feed the entire town.

It's a good story for lean times like these. Fact is, the miracle of dinner is an ordinary one, and these three books make it easy to conjure up mouthwatering meals from the most unmagical of ingredients.

If there's a prize for creating a sensation with the fewest ingredients, I think it has to go to "Tasty," by Roy Finamore. Marinate a cheap steak in beer and molasses. Watermelon and red onion chilled in gin. In recipe after recipe, familiar friends from the supermarket rub shoulders in intriguing new ways.

I've only had this book for two years. It's already sporting the frayed jacket and smudged Post-its that are a cookbook's badge of honor. And I swear, with every recipe I make from this book, I cook a little smarter.

Speaking of smarter, sometimes I hate the editors of Cook's Illustrated because they're always right. But that doesn't stop me from constantly using their books. "Perfect Vegetables" is my vegetable Wikipedia, the source I turn to when I'm stupidly standing over a cutting board holding a bulb of kohlrabi.

Name an item from the produce aisle, and Cook's Illustrated has grilled it, steamed it, baked it, roasted it or done whatever it takes to wheedle out its vegetable essence. Show me a cook who spends eight hours a day testing 12 batches of zucchini, and I'll show you someone who has no time for boring.

Okay. Now, I'm going where many have gone before. Yeah, I'm going to talk about Alice Waters' latest book. In fact, I like to read a little passage of Alice Waters every night before bedtime while listening to public radio and tucking a little sprig of chervil under my pillow.

NPR: In "The Art of Simple Food," waters does more with celery, carrots, onions and parsley than anybody else I can name.

Like the beggar in "Stone Soup," she reintroduces people to simple ingredients as if they're treasures hidden in plain sight. And at the end, there's always a meal that turns out to be more than the sum of its parsnips.

So, whether you're a fat cat, a social butterfly or a lone wolf at a table for one, there's no reason not to eat well even in times like these. With these three books and the mad cooking skills you'll have once you've read them, the table's set in style every night, even if you have to start with just a kettle full of water and one plain stone.

NORRIS: Susie Chang lives in Massachusetts. For more Three Books recommendations and Alice Waters' recipe for a simple vegetable soup, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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