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LIANE HANSEN, host:

You can mull over that puzzle challenge while you get ready to prepare the holiday meal for this coming week. But what to cook - something familiar or something surprising? Cookbooks abound with ideas for menu planning, and food writer Susan Chang is back to talk about the best of them.

She's at member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. Hi, Susie.

Ms. T. SUSAN CHANG (Food Writer): Hi, Liane, great to be back.

HANSEN: Nice to have you back for Thanksgiving. As you know, as we all know, the foundation of many Thanksgiving meals is the turkey. What's the best recipe you've found in these cookbooks?

Ms. CHANG: Well, personally I'm not making the turkey this year. So that's lucky for me. But - all I have to make is pie. But if I were making the turkey, the one I'd want to do is from "The New York Times Cookbook." It's called a Roasted Brine-Cured Turkey with Wild Mushroom Stuffing. And there are some nice, slightly contrarian touches in the brine that are fennel, star anise, coriander. So if you happen to have about 72 hours on your hands, that's the one to do. You'll have to start tonight.

HANSEN: Hmm, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: I love that New York Times cookbook, because now I feel I can toss away all my newspaper clippings with the recipes I've collected for the years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHANG: That's right.

HANSEN: Have you seen any or, you know, some interesting choices for main dishes?

Ms. CHANG: Well, yes. I've seen some other interesting choices that are not Thanksgiving-oriented per se. But they're things I'd do if I were expecting company. Stewey-braise type things that kind of give you the freedom not to fuss when the guests are arriving.

Let's see, in Dorie Greenspan's "Around My French Table," there's a wonderful lamb and dried apricot tagine. Kind of a stew - absolutely delicious. In Melissa Clark's "In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite," there's a braised flanken with pomegranate seeds. Beautiful to look at and delicious to eat.

HANSEN: A flanken is what, meat?

Ms. CHANG: Yes, that's a beef short rib, but it's crosscut so that it softens up a lot more easily in the pot.

HANSEN: Now, can anyone make these dishes or are there degrees of difficulty?

Ms. CHANG: Well, this year there are some slow recipes but not so much difficult recipes. I think they take, you know, not so much skill as commitment. I mean, there's hardly anything I can commit to do for 72 hours.

But in general, this year's recipes, they look kind of longer and harder than they really are, because these authors actually take the trouble to tell you everything you need to know to do the recipe. You know, it's those short, cute cookbooks with almost nothing on the page - those are the ones you have to watch out for 'cause they'll double-cross you.

HANSEN: As opposed to "One Big Table" which has 600 recipes from home cooks. It doesn't seem like you can go wrong there, "Farmers, Fishermen, Pitmasters and Chefs."

Ms. CHANG: Yeah, I was just blown away by that book. It's huge. It's splendidly diverse. There's recipes from home cooks all over the country. And I don't know how much shoe leather Molly O'Neill wore out tracking down these recipes but I know it took her 10 years. It's just great journalism.

HANSEN: Wow. Was 2010 a good year for cookbooks?

Ms. CHANG: Oh, unbelievable. I mean, Liane, I just totally agonized over this year's choices. I mean, it's never not hard. But this year it was like "Clash of the Titans." There are just so many once-in-a-lifetime books this year and there were whole categories of wonderful books I couldn't even include. You know, beautiful coffee table books.

I just wanted to stick to the books that everyday cooks would want to use every day. And there are so many of them. I mean, I want to make every recipe in these books. And even just in my top 10 that would be like 3,000 recipes - it'd take me eight years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Well, what about these cookbooks as gifts? I mean do you give them to someone who's going to cook the recipes? Or do you give them to someone 'cause the cookbook looks nice and it's nice to read?

Ms. CHANG: Well, there's a bit of both this year, which is kind of nice. For other people, this year, I would give them like "The Gourmet Cookie Book." It's a little book. It's adorable. It's got pictures of the best cookie from each year for the last, I don't know, 60, 70 years, however long it was that Gourmet was in business. I would definitely give people "One Big Table" because it'll be great bedtime reading straight through spring.

And for myself, you know, it's kinda funny. I would choose "The Food Substitutions Bible," because if you're a cook and you want one book that's always going to be in the kitchen to help you out, you want "The Food Substitutions Bible."

HANSEN: I love that 'cause 6,500 substitutions for ingredients, equipment and techniques, how many times have we approached a recipe and we're missing like one thing? And it's usually buttermilk.

Ms. CHANG: That's right. And then you decide not to do it...

HANSEN: Right.

Ms. CHANG: ...which is just silly.

HANSEN: Right, very silly. You know, there often can be too many well-meaning cooks in the kitchen during the holiday. And, you know, broths are in danger of spoiling. Are there tasks that you can actually delegate to others? I mean, both to adults and children?

Ms. CHANG: Sure. Sure. I mean, ideally, you'd want just one person on the stove or the oven, or whatever it is. But you want other people sitting around the table keeping the cook company and doing kind of easy prep stuff. So if it's grownups, you can ask them to crack nuts. You can ask them to trim beans. You can definitely put them in charge of the drinks. You can make them tell you funny stories so you don't get bored.

But if you're dealing with kids, well, it's not the best day to teach kids how to cook. I mean, I've got two kids and it's the one day I do not want to see them in the kitchen. So like a day or two before, yeah, invite them in. Have them bake pies. Have them bake cookies with you so they can show off on Thanksgiving Day. You know, hey, I made these. Not the day of.

HANSEN: What's the best survival tip for a holiday cook?

Ms. CHANG: Three words: Plan way ahead. It's pretty much common sense. You know, you can have people bring dessert and salad, 'cause salad is a huge kitchen counter hog when you're assembling it. Choose sides you can make the day before. Do not cook show-stoppers that you have never tried to cook before. Do not plan to use your oven for anything but the bird, 'cause you don't want to open that door if you don't have to. And let's see, put somebody you trust in charge of last-minute cleaning, pouring the drinks, setting the table, everything except cooking. And if people want to do dishes, let them.

HANSEN: What pies are you making?

Ms. CHANG: I am making apple pie. I am making a cranberry orange pear pie. I am making a not-a-pie, which is a chocolate tart because I need my chocolate. And I don't know what pie number four is yet. I'll take suggestions.

HANSEN: To see Susie's list of cookbooks, you can go to NPR.org. Susie Chang is a food writer and a regular contributor to NPR's Kitchen Window. She joined us from member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. Thanks, Susie. Happy Thanksgiving.

Ms. CHANG: Thanks, Liane.

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