In England during the Middle Ages a descriptive term, "lenten-faced," came into the language. It could be interpreted as being "lean and dismal of countenance." That should come as no surprise. The 40-day period before the celebration of Easter that began yesterday is a time of penitence and fasting. It comes at a gloomy season in Northern Europe and North America, a time of year when supplies of winter foods had run low and spring's bounty could not yet be tapped.

The strict fasting laws of Lent for Roman Catholics were dispensed with during World War II and only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are still kept as fast days. But change in the laws began far earlier, during the Middle Ages, as cities grew up and food became more plentiful. The one meal allowed during a Lenten day could not be served before vespers, the evening mass. By the 16th century vespers was being held at noon during Lent. A light meal was allowed in the evening as well. In our time, when teh seasonal variances in food supply are almost unnoticed by the supermarket shopper, there no longer is a practical need to reduce food consumption at winter's end.

As for the religious aspect, Arthur Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, once observed: "I often think the doctrines of fasting in Lent and having meatless days are old-fashioned. It might be better to give up television.That would be a more meaningful self-denial in this day and age."

While that probably is true for the greater number of English and American families, a growing number of persons are practicing some of the strictures of Lent at this time and year-round for a variety of reasons. They feel we should eat less red meat and less of everything in general for the sake of personal health and as a first step toward a fairer distribution of the world's food supply.

By eliminating what once was fobidden during Lent - meat, fish, eggs and butter - one moves toward a diet that vegetarians and a growing number of nutritionists have been endorsing. Even stopping short of that, cutting out a meal, cutting down on portions or reducing the intake of redmeat protein and sugar-based carbohydrates might be a worthwhile experiment during this season.

One illusion that surely should be erased by increasing exposure to vegetarian and Oriental recipes is that a meatless Lenten menu must be dull and monotonous. Here are some recipes utilizing vegetables, eggs, cheese or flour that should brighten the countenance of even the most lentened-faced of family or friends. If the others fail, the last is for hot cross buns, a symbol of Good Friday and, of course, of the end of Lent. CELERY ROOT WITH ANCHOVIES (Serves 6) 1 large celery root 1 tablespoon salt 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar 1/3 cup oil (peanut or olive preferred) 10-12 flat anchovy fillets, drained Salt, freshly ground pepper

Peel celery root and wash it. Cut the root into thin slices, then into thin, long julienne strips. Place strips in a glass bowl. Add 1 tablespoon salt and lemon juice. Mix, let rest for 30 minutes. Drain bowl and dry strips with paper towels.

Mix mustard, a few drops of vinegar, salt and pepper in a warm bowl. Drop by drop, whisk in oil until the mixture "takes." Whisk in remaining oil in a thin stream to form a sauce of mayonnaise consistency. Whisk in remaining vinegar and adjust seasoning as desired. Toss celery root in this sauce and let rest several hours or overnight in the refrigerator, covered. Allow to return to room temperature, transfer to a serving plate or bowl and decorate with anchovies, laying them on top to form a grill pattern. Serve as an appetizer or first course. ITALIAN VEGETABLE CASSEROLE (Serves 12) 10 tablespoons butter or margarine 1/3 cup chopped onion 1 1/2 pounds zucchini, washed and cut in 1/2-inch slices. 1 tablespoon olive oil 2 pounds long gain rice (4 cups) 8 cups vegetable broth, heated 1/2 pound mushrooms, thinly sliced 1 box (10 ounces) frozen peas; defrost half, reserve the rest Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley 1/4 cup Parmesian cheese

Heat 4 tablespoons butter in a heavy pan with a tight-fitting lid. Add onion and cook until it softens, about 5 minutes. Add zucchini and saute until slices begin to brown lightly. Add oil. Pour in rice and stir to coat each grain. Add hot broth, stir briefly to be sure no rice is stuck to bottom, then cover pan and place in a preheated, 400-degree oven. Cook for 20 minutes.

While rice is cooking, or beforehand, melt 2 tablespoons butter in another pan. Add mushrooms and saute until they begin to give off liquid. Add peas and toss for 3 or 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, mix in parsley. When rice is done, remove lid and stir in vegetables plus half the cheese and remaining butter. Keep warm and just before serving sprinkle on remaining cheese.

Note: This dish may be prepared with a wide variety of vegetables. Color is important, so try to use at least one green vegetable. Use leftovers. SPINACH WITH ORANGE SLICE (Serves 4 to 6) 2 packages fresh or frozen spinach 3 tablespoons butter 1/4 cup heavy cream Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste 1 can (10 ounces) mandarin orange sections

Cook frozen spinach by package directions, or clean fresh spinach and cook in boiling water until just tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Plunge in cold water to stop cooking. Drain, then squeeze balls of spinach between the hands to force out more water. Chop.

Melt butter in a saucepan. When bubbling add spinach, cream and seasonings and stir until mixed and heated through. At the same time separately warm orange sections in their juice. Spread spinach on a serving dish to make a bed. Lift orange sections with a slotted spoon and arrange around edge of spinach. Keep warm until served. RED CAULIFLOWER (Serves 6) 2 tablespoons olive oil 6 small white onions, minced, or scallions cut into 1/2-inch pieces. 2 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half 5 canned tomatoes, chopped 2 heads cauliflower, separated into florets 2 teaspoons salt and a pinch of freshly ground pepper 1/2 teaspoon Spanish saffron 4 large or 6 medium-sized potatoes, sliced Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and saute onions and garlic for 3 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook over high heat until they begin to bubble. Add cauliflower and lower the falme. Add salt, pepper and saffron (crush between your fingers and sprinkle). Cook, uncovered, over low heat for about 10 minutes. Add about 1/2 cup water if the dish becomes dry. Add potatoes and cook, uncovered, for 25 minutes, adding more water if necessary, until the potatoes are just cooked. Check the seasoning and serve.

From "The Cuisine of the Sun" by Mirelle Johnson. MUFFIN OMELET (Serves 1 or 2) 2 tablespoons butter or margarine 2 tablespoons almond slivers or slices 1/2 tablespoon chopped chives 1/2 teaspoon curry power 1/2 English muffin, or 1 slice stale bread, cut into thin strips or cubes 3 eggs

Melt butter in an omelet or seasoned frying pan and heat until it begins to brown. Saute almonds in butter over low heat for 3 or 4 minutes. Add chives and curry power and cook 1 minute. Add bread and saute briefly. Add more butter if bottom of pan is dry. Beat eggs with 1 tablespoon water. Pour into pan and stir until curbs form. Roll over, omelet-fashion, and turn onto a plate. ARNO SCHMIDT's ROQUEFORT MOUSSE (Serves 6 to 8) 2 cups crumbled Roquefort cheese 1 cup cream cheese 4 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce Pinch cayenne pepper 1 cup heavy cream, slightly whipped

Combine all ingredients except whipped cream in a blender or food processor and work until smooth. Put mixture in a stainless steel bowl, set on ice and fold in cream carefully. Transfer to a mold and chill.

The mousse is quite soft, so before unmolding it, put mold in freezer for about 20 minutes. Dip into very hot water and invert on a serving platter. Shake to loosen mousse if necessary, remove mold and smooth surface with a spatula or table knife. STELLA STANDARD'S HOT CROSS BUNS (Makes 2 dozen) 2 envelopes yeast 1/4 cup lukewarm water 1 tablespoon light brown sugar 1 1/2 cups scalded milk 1/2 cup sweet butter 1/2 cup brown sugar 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 2 eggs, beaten 4 (or more) cups sifted flour 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon ground cloves 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1/2 cup currants 1/3 cup finely diced citron For the frosting: 2 tablespoons hot milk Powdered sugar Grated rind of 1 lemon

Dissolve yeast in lukewarm water with 1 tablespoon brown sugar until frothy. Scald milk and add butter, sugar and salt. Beat eggs until light and combine with the milk mixture and the yeast. Sift 3 cups of flour with the spices into a mixing bowl; add the yeast mixture. Beat for 4 minutes. Toss currants and citron with 1/2 cup flour and mix it with the sponge. If necessary add more flour to make a firm dough.

Beat well and set the dough bowl in a pan of warm water to rise, covered with a towel. When dough is light, beat it down well anf form into 2 dozen balls. Put them in a long, well-greased pan, loosely covered with a towel, to rise again. This will take about 45 minutes.

bake them about 20 minutes at 400 degrees. If baking too fast, turn heat down to 325 degrees. When they come from the oven, brush with melted butter. For the icing, mix the hot milk with as much powdered sugar as it will take and not run; add the lemon rind. When rolls are cool, make a cross over the tops with icing.

From "Our Daily Bread"