Deciding what's "the best" is a tricky challenge, since such definitions are clearly subjective - especially with recipes and food. De gustibus, and all that.
A smart first move for the seeker of perfection is to tap into the experience of others reliably qualified to make a preliminary selection for you. Then, what's left is the pleasure of testing and tasting to pinpoint your own winners.
Happily, from time to time editors at distinguished culinary establishments do the research, make their choices and publish helpful opinions in books such as the following.
"The Best of Gourmet - 20th Anniversary Edition" (Random House, 2005, $40) offers "a year of celebrations," with some 325 recipes, all previously published in the magazine and here given reruns.
There are two sections with suggested menus, the first for special occasions such as a birthday, Easter or Hanukkah; the second for generic theme occasions, such as lunch in the garden, or an Irish supper. A third section groups recipes by type, such a soups, poultry, or desserts. Elegantly presented and illustrated, this volume won't leave anyone hungry for ideas.
"Food & Wine Annual Cookbook 2005" (American Express Publishing, distributed by Sterling, 2005, $29.95) is an equally glossy production, also billed as an entire year of recipes, from the magazine of the same name.
The editors says the total of recipes is at least 650, all tabbed to tell readers if they are "fast," "healthy," "make ahead," and-or "staff favorite." The recipes are grouped in chapters, from starters through drinks, with a section on wine pairings. Browsing through the book should be fun as well as providing plenty of food for thought and for menu planning.
"The New Best Recipe" (America's Test Kitchen, 2004, $35), from the editors of Cook's Illustrated, promises the magazine's usual careful winnowing of variations en route to declaring their "best." The book is a revision, an "all-new" edition of a 1999 original, with some 1,000 recipes.
This is a really solid amount of information, 1,028 pages packed with information, including explanations of what didn't work as well as what did. No color photos here, but a generous scattering of the magazine's characteristic illustrations, how-to and step-by-step procedures, and its comparative surveys of products and kitchen equipment. The table of contents summarizes the march through the whole range of meal offerings, course by course, again from appetizers though ice cream in the dessert section.
"Best American Side Dishes" (America's Test Kitchen, 2005, $35), also from the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine, offers "500 practical recipes for everything but the main course." General categories are explained, variations offered of a range of ingredients and dishes, in the magazine's thorough style, with nice excursions into ethnic regions.
"Best of the Best" (American Express Publishing, distributed by Sterling, 2004, $29.95) is the latest in an annual series from the editors of Food & Wine magazine. The contents here are "the best recipes from the 25 best cookbooks of the year." This focus brings readers some 100 recipes from a range of prominent chefs and food writers, with recipes reproduced as they appeared in the original cookbooks, introduced by interviews and profiles of the writers. There are also added cooking tips from the magazine's test kitchens.
"The Best American Recipes 2004-2005" (Houghton Mifflin, 2004, $26), edited by Fran McCullough and Molly Stevens, ranges widely in its selection, described as, "The year's top picks from books, magazines, newspapers, and the Internet."
The total is some 150 recipes, credited to a wide variety of contributors, vouched for by the editors and rounded out with their "notes from our test kitchen" to help you get it right.