Maybe the first thing you think of when someone says ground beef is hamburger. Not me!

My mind turns immediately to meat sauce - the kind you put over spaghetti.

It was the Wednesday night dish in my house when I was growing up and to me it was better then roast beef or steak.

What small amount was leftover was terrific for Thursday morning breakfast - cold!

As a matter of fact, hamburgers were seldom served, possibly because when they arrived at the table they looked like hockey pucks and were dried and tasteless. Why? Because my mother cooked them under the broiler - for a long time. She didn't approve of fried foods. Only mashed potatoes saved the meal from being a total bore.

After I was married, the first thing I learned how to cook was my mother's meat sauce. She sort of Americanized what she had learned from Italian friends who simmered their sauce for hours and hours. She substituted shortening for the olive oil (I don't think she ever used olive oil in her life), cut down on the spices, reduced the cooking time to 2 hours at most and never thought to serve grated cheese. It was still terrific.

One Italian family we used to see at the local picnic area brought a pot of sauce on Sundays to cook all afternoon on the stone barbecue while the kids and men played softball and the women sat around crocheting. I always hoped they would invite me over for the spaghetti and sauce so I could have that instead of the hamburgers our group was grilling. They never did. I guess my longing look wasn't convincing enough. They also cooked eggplants, but I didn't even know what they were until I was 14.

To think of ground beef as a flat patty topped with catsup, mustard, onion, relish or what have you, is to deny the enormous possiblities for creativity even the most modest cooks can achieve. Ground beef is the medium to absorb the wonderful flavors of tomato, soy sauce, oregano, basil, cheese. To transform a mundane American food into a little bit of Europe, Sound American or the Orient. Almost everything makes ground beef taste better.

Ground beef is also security. With a pound of it neither you nor your friends need go hungry. How many it will serve depends on the appetites of those being fed: from two large eaters to four small ones. Or it can be pulled and stretched so that it will serve as many as eight. And you don't need textured vegetable protein to do it. Simple natural extenders such as rice, noodles, oatmeal and beans accomplish the same purpose with more flavor and texture.

What's more, you don't need a fancy grade of beef to produce an acceptable ground beef. How you buy ground beef should be determined solely on the basis of how much fact you want mixed in with the meat. Thirty percent is the limit by law, but you can pay more and get less fat. If you are watching your calories and your fat intake you may want to spend the difference. On the other hand, if you are browning the meat before combining it with other ingredients you can pour off as much of the fat as you like.

There isn't much sense in buying ground sirloin for the flavor when you are making meatloaves and casseroles. If you are looking for the leanest meat possible, you may want to buy a piece of round steak and have all the fat trimmed off before grinding.

Freshly ground beef is bluish red. It darkens within a few hours.

A package labeled "ground beef" may not contain any other kind of meat nor any additives, including extenders.

If you are concerned about the possible dangers of frying beef at high temperatures in a pan, in the following recipes you can brown the meat under the broiler. Another alternative for recipes with vegetables is to cook the vegetables first in oil, then add the meat and cook it. MY MOTHER'S MEAT SAUCE FOR SPAGHETTI-ADAPTED (4 servings) 1 pound ground beef 1 green pepper, chopped 1 large onion, chopped 2 garlic cloves, chopped 1 can (1 pound) tomatoes 1 can ( 6 ounces) tomato paste 1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce Salt and Pepper to taste 1 teaspoon oregano 1/2 teaspoon basil 1 pound thin spaghetti Grated parmesan cheese for topping

Brown the meat with the pepper, onions and garlic in a heavy skillet. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste and sauce, salt, pepper, oregano and basil. Simmer, covered, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. When ready to serve, cook the spaghetti and serve sauce over spaghetti. Pass cheese. SWISS MEAT ROLL (2 to 4 servings) 1 pound ground beef Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 6 to 8 slices Swiss cheese 1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce

Season the beef with salt and pepper, and other spices, if desired. Shape into a loaf and place on wax paper. Flatten the loaf into a rectangle. Cover the rectangle with the cheese slices and roll up as for jelly roll, using the wax paper as an aid. Place in shallow baking dish and cover with tomato sauce. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

The roll may be frozen before baking, if desired. To serve, defrost and bake. MEAT LOAF RING (4 servings) 1/2 cup minced onion 1/4 pound mushrooms, sliced 1 pound ground beef 1/2 cup ground carrot 1 egg Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 teaspoon marjoram 1/2 teaspoon basil 1/2 teaspoon thyme 1/4 cup catsup 1 teaspoon lemon juice 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce 3 tablespoons mile 1/6 teaspoon ground cloves

Saute the onion, mushrooms and ground beef until beef loses its pink color. Drain off fat. Combine with all of remaining ingredients and mix well but lightly. Grease a 3- to 4-cup ring mold and fill with beef mixture. Cover with foil. Place ring mold in pan of water and bake at 350 decrees about 45 minutes. Unmold and serve with center filled with green vegetable or mashed potatoes. NORWEGIAN MEAT PIE (8 servings) 2 1/2 pounds ground beef 2 slices pumpernickel or rye bread, diced very small 1 teaspoon caraway seed Salt to taste 3 ounces Gruyere cheese, diced 1 celery stalk, thinly sliced 1 green onion, thinly sliced 4 eggs 1 pint half and half cream

Blend together the beef, bread, caraway and salt. Pat mixture very firmly into 10 inch pie plate or shallow casserole to form a "pie" crust, reserving 3 or 4 tablespoons of the mixture. Bake at 300 degrees for about 30 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove from oven and pour off any excess fat. It crust has developed any boles, patch with reserved meat misture. Sprinkle the cheese, celery and onion over the bottom of the crust.

At this point the dish may be refrigerated until near serving time. To serve, return to room temperature and continue. Beat the eggs and half and half together and pour into crust.Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, or until filling is set. Time will depend on size of the pan. If the crust seems to be browning too much, cover edges with foil. Remove from oven and allow to set at least 15 minutes before slicing to serve. CHILI CON SAUSAGE (12 servings) 1 1/2 pounds ground beef 3 medium onions, chopped 2 or 3 colves garlic, minced 1 tablespoon ground cumin 2 1/4 teaspoons chili powder 1 1/2 teaspoons paprike Freshly ground black pepper 2 cups canned tomatoes 1 1/2 pounds spicy sausage 5 cans (1 pound each) kidney beans

Saute the meat and onion until meat borwns. Add the garlic, cumin, chili powder, paprika and pepper and blend well. Add tomatoes. Meanwhile, simmen the sausage in water to cover for 5 minutes. If desired, remove casings from sausage and cut meat in small pieces. Add to beef mixture with undrained cans of kidney beans and cook 15 to 20 minutes or until some of the liquid is absorbed. Adjust seasonings as desired.

This dish may be frozen. To serve defrost and reheat. PICADINHO (6 to 8 servings) 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 medium onion, chopped 1 1/2 pounds ground beef 2 cans (1 pound each) tomatoes, preferably whole 1 teaspoon oregano Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 1/4 cup sliced, pimiento-stuffed olives 4 ounces Cheddar cheese, shreddred 1 medium boiled potato, peeled and diced 2 hard-cooked eggs Cooked rice

Heat the oil in the skillet and saute the onion and beef until meat is well browned.Add the tomatoes, oregano, salt, pepper and olives. Simmer 30 minutes. Add the cheese; cover and cook until cheese melts. Do not stir. Just before serving, add potato and eggs. Serve over cooked rice.