Nothing distills the cold quite so purely as the faint cry of wild geese in the distance. Waterfowlers have, for generations, harkened to the cry of the wild goose. Lucky hunters in the tidewater areas are returning from the reedy, marshy wetlands with a bag of Canada geese. Long one of America's favorite gamebirds, the Canada goose is prized for its succulence. What could be more festive or traditional than a goose for the holidays?

"But aren't they greasy?" the uninitiated will ask. Right away, before entering the kitchen, it must be understood that the Canada goose is not the fat, waddling fellow of the barnyard and nursery rhymes. The Canada goose is lean and the flesh is dark. Any bird that has recently migrated from northern Canada is not apt ot be fat. The flavor is mild compared to most waterfowl, as the Canada goose favors corn, soybeans, writer rye, wheat and other grains for its diet. The wild goose is worthy of the most elegant dinner.

Hopefully, the goose has been dry plucked when you receive it. Most gunners today take the geese to a professional plucker before taking them home. In that case, you will have dressed, unfrozen birds to deal with. There is a great bhullabaloo about aging gamebirds by hanging. Most of it is nonsense. Even if we has a barn rafter from which to hang them, not many of us today would risk the vagaries of temperature that might spoil a perfectly good gamebird.

Wild goose does benefit somewhat from aging a day or two before cooking or freeezing. Simply take the goose, put it in a plastic bag or wrap it loosely in paper toweling and put it in a brown paper bag. Some cooks put half a lemon or a peeled, white potato in the cavity during the aging. Close the bag and put it in the bottom of the refrigerator for one or two days. At the end of the aging time, you are ready to cook the goose or put it in the freezer to use later.

Before cooking, you should determine if the goose is young or old. It isn't foolproof, but here are some guidelines. Generally speaking, a young goose will weigh four to six pounds, dressed. It will have a flexible breastboe and a covering of immature featehrs called "pinefeathers." You'll discover plenty of these on the skin of a young goose unless the picker has done an exceptional job. Remove as many of the pinefeathers as possible before cooking. A goose six pounds or more is probably an older bird. The older bird will not have pinfeathers will be picked cleaner and have a rigid breastbone.

Younger geese can be roasted or cooked by any method, but older, larger birds should be cooked with moist heat. If the age of the bird is in question, you may choose to roast it anyway, but add a cup of water or wine to the roasting pan and cover it during the last hour of roasting. It is usually safer to braise a very large goose.

Roasting a wild goose is eady. Keeping in mind that the goose is very lean, rub it generously with butter or margarine or place strips of uncooked bacon over the bird in the roasting pan. A rule of thumb is to roast a wild goose 25 minutes per pound, uncovered, in a 300-degree oven. A goose may be roasted plain, but a stuffing heightens the pleasure of a perfect bird. There is a wide variety of stuffings for wild geese. A braised goose simply has liquid added to the cooking process.

Wild goose is versatile in that it can be accompanied by so many appropriate side dishes. It goes well with root vegetables and any of the crisp, green vegetables like asparagus, green beans or broccoli. It is fine with braised celery. In some regions, sauerkraut is a traditional partner. So are scalloped oysters. Generous sprigs of parsley or cress and small, red pickled crabapples on a platter with a roast goose are appropriate garnitures.

ROAST WILD GOOSE

(6 servings)

Quarter 1 large peeled onion and 2 medium unpeeled apples and place in cavity of goose. Spread soft butter over breast. Salt and pepper to taste. Place 4 thick slices of bacon over breast. Place in roasting pan, breast up; add 1 cup sweet white wine. Cover roaster and bake in 275-degree oven 2 hours. Remove cover and continue to cook at same temperature until brown and tender.

FRUIT-STUFFED GOOSE 1 ready-to-cook goose 3 1/2 cups soft bread cubes 1 1/2 cups apple, diced 1 orange, peeled and divided into sections 1/2 cup raisins 1 medium onion, chopped 1 cup seedless grapes 1/4 cup butter or margarine, melted 4 slices bacon or salt pork, uncooked 3 cups water 2 chicken bouillon cubes

Place bread cubes, apple, orange, raisins, onion, grapes and butter into mixing bowl and combine. Salt and pepper goose inside and out. Stuff and truss. Place goose, breast side up, in baking pan. Strip bacon across breast and fasten with toothpicks. Add water and bouillon cubes; more water may be needed. Cook uncovered at 300 degrees for 4 hours. Baste every 30 minutes.

BRAISED GOOSE 1 ready-to-cook goose 4 slices bacon,uncooked 2 carrots, diced 1 large onion, chopped 1 teaspoon thyme 1/8 teaspoon garlic salt 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon black pepper 1 chicken bouillon cube 1 medium rutabaga, diced 2 tablespoons bacon fat 4 tablespoons all-purposes flour 1/4 cup cold water

Place goose in large pot. Add bacon, carrots, onion, thyme, garlic salt, parsley, salt, pepper, bouillon cube and 1 quart water. Cover, bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer and cook until fork easily pierces meat (about 2 hours). Remove from stock when done. Saute retabaga in bacon fat 3 minutes. Drain and place into stock. Cook until tender. Strain stock. Blend flour and cold water together until smooth. Add to stock, stirring. Pour gravy over goose and serve with rutabaga.