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Just how many coffee tables are there in America, anyway? There has to be someplace to put all those glossy cookbooks.

Heaven knows they don't belong in the kitchen where an errant dab of butter might attach itself to a beautifully printed recipe. A splash of wine or even a squiggle of tomato sauce might irreparably mar a silken, shiny, costly page.

I'm referring to all the huge and expensive food-related tomes that begin to show up in bookstores at this gifty time of year. "At Home with Carolyne Roehm," for instance (Broadway Books) - a gorgeous photo collection of flower arrangements and table settings and oh yes, recipes. It costs $60 and will either inspire you or burden you with guilt. (Former designer Roehm, of course, has a greenhouse and a gardener to take care of it, as well as a kitchen staff of two.)

Then there is Michael Ghiarello's "Napa Stories: Profiles, Reflections & Recipes from the Napa Valley" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) that sells for $50. Maybe it's meant for armchair travelers who are presently afraid to fly.

What to me is much more difficult to understand are the fancy chef cookbooks that offer recipes only. Recipes that very few people have the courage to tackle. And perhaps they are right. "Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme" by Dorie Greenspan (Little, Brown and Co.) is a $40 advertisement for Valrhona Chocolate as far as I can see. Every recipe specifies that particular brand.

Herme is a talented French pastry chef whom Vogue Magazine (those experts) once dubbed the "Picasso of Pastry." But I wonder how many of us are going to follow his recipe for Warm Chocolate Croquettes in Cold Coconut Milk Tapioca Soup? I'm in the food business and a pretty good cook, but I plan to stay far, far away.

The thing is, there is food you want to eat in restaurants (or pastry shops) and food you want to eat at home, and the twain don't meet very often. It's almost impossible to pull off a professional recipe in a home kitchen because you probably don't have the ingredients, equipment or staff to do it properly. Disappointment follows like the night the day. .

So when you see a book like "Farallon: The Very Best of San Francisco Cuisine" by Mark Franz and Lisa Weiss (Chronicle Books, $40), you'd better think twice about tackling a recipe like Squab Breast Terrine with Shiitake Duxelles, Seared Foie Gras, Braised Leeks and Broken Beet Vinaigrette. Even if you can say it, you probably can't cook it. (Farallon is an exclusive West Coast restaurant, by the way.)

Then there is "Nobu the Cookbook" by famed sushi chef/restaurateur Nobuyuki Matsuhisa (Kodansha International, $37), but you might as well forget that one, too. Unless you truly think you want to wrestle with Grilled Octopus with Miso Anticucho Sauce, that is. I love octopus and I love miso, but I'd rather the chef prepare them for me in his restaurant in Manhattan's Tribeca.

He can also pick up the check.


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