LOOKING FOR something that cooks faster than ordinary rice, has far more nutritional value and tastes as if it had some character of its own?

There are two little brown grains which have been sitting patiently on the grocery shelves, waiting for years to be discovered by the average American shopper -- whose family didn't come from Eastern Europe or the Middle East.

If buckwheat and wheat had been planted in the South instead of rice, would we be eating Red Beans and Groats, and singing about Bulguraroni?

Today the United States exports most of its bulgur and buckwheat, and very few Americans even know what they are missing.

What they are missing are the berries of the buckwheat and cooked, parched ground berries of the wheat. Technically speaking, buckwheat is not a grain. It's a fruit, but its berries look as if they belong to the grain family and nutritionally they are similar to wheat.

Bulgur and buckwheat groats aren't totally alien foods, they are just unfamiliar parts of familiar foods. Who doesn't remember buckwheat pancakes from childhood? Who hasn't seen buckwheat honey? And though there is very little resemblance, when bulgur comes in ground-up form we know it as bread or cereal.

Several things have happened in the last few years that have convinced some people that this is the hour for buckwheat and bulgur: the increased interest in ethnic and vegetarian cooking and the recent emphasis on the need for increased consumption of complex carbohydrates -- fruits, vegetables and grains, which also means more fiber.

At this year's newspaper food editors conference the Buckwheat Institute was on the program for the first time. But it wasn't selling flour; it was selling groats, or kasha as it is called by Jews and Russians.

Then last week a woman from New Jersey telephoned to say she was marketing bulgur and had hopes of interesting the Department of Agriculture in offering it as an alternative to bread. "You know," she said, "the Agency for International Development can buy bulgur for 13 cents a pound. It's a surplus commodity." (Before you sneer about the quality and taste of surplus commodities remember the school lunch program was designed, in part, to get rid of surplus butter.)

Give Madison Avenue a chance and perhaps bulgur and buckwheat can become as popular as Kool Aid.

Both bulgur and buckwheat groats have long and honorable histories. Buckwheat grew in China in prehistoric times and was introduced into Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean by tribes migrating from Siberia and Manchuria. It was brought to this country by German and Dutch settlers and took off in the South in the 1800s as an inexpensive flour grain. Stephen Foster made it famous: De buckwheat cake was in her mouth, De tear was in her eye; Says I: "I'm coming from de South, Susanna, don't you cry."

But its fame didn't last and certainly not many southerners eating buckwheat pancakes knew anything about buckwheat groats.

As Marlene Anne Bumgarner notes in The Book of Whole Grains, "Buckwheat is one of those foods which people either love or hate, and while we like it a lot at our house, we've dicovered by trying out recipes on our friends that the feeling is not universal." I suspect that's only because it is an unfamiliar taste.

Buckwheat groats come in four grinds: fine, medium, coarse and whole. While the whole is often the most difficult to find, it is without doubt, the tastiest. The groats have a toasted flavor and crunchy texture and go well with roasted meats and in casseroles. The most famous way of serving groats in this country is as groats and noodles (kasha varnetckes), a Jewish dish that makes a perfect foil for almost any sauce.

Bulgur is a staple in many southern Eastern European countries and in the Middle East. It has a wonderful nut-like flavor and because it is partially cooked before it is ground, it cooks very quickly. There are many Middle Eastern recipes that call for soaking the bulgur in water, which softens it. No cooking is needed. Many American recipes call for cooking bulgur far longer than necessary. It comes in coarse, medium and fine grind; the most flavorful being the coarse.

Because bulgur and buckwheat are minimally processed, they contain most of their original nutrients, which is not the case for a product like white rice. Even though white rice may be enriched, all of the nutrients that were taken out have not been put back.

It's relatively easy to find kasha in the supermarket. Unfortunately it is seldom whole kasha, which is available in many natural food stores. While bulgur can be found in the supermarket it is usually in the form of a boxed pilaf with seasonings already added. In addition to being overpriced, it doesn't offer you the opportunity to do your own seasoning. Look in the natural food store for bulgur in bulk.

While both bulgur and buckwheat groats are not interchangeable with rice (you probably wouldn't like szechuan chicken and steaming bulgur) there are many times when they can be used. But to get a better sense of the things with which they taste best, you might begin with these recipes. BULGUR CASSEROLE (10 or 12 servings) 4 tablespoons oil 2 cups chopped onion 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1/4 pound fresh mushrooms, chopped 1 1/2 cups bulgur 2 cups sliced black olives 1 (1 pound, 12 ounce) can tomatoes 1 cup dry sherry 2 teaspoons oregano Salt and pepper to taste 2 cups grated cheddar cheese 4 tablespoons chopped parsley Paprika

Heat oil in skillet. Saute onion, garlic and mushrooms in hot oil until onion is golden. Add bulgur, olives, tomatoes, sherry, organo, salt and pepper. Mix well; bring to boil and pour into 4-quart casserole. Refrigerate or freeze, if desired. When ready to serve, return to room temperature, cover and bake at 375 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes, until mixture is heated through. Uncover, sprinkle with cheese and continue baking for 15 minutes, until cheese melts. Sprinkle with parsley and paprika and serve.

Note: This dish can be made with 2 pounds of ground beef. Brown the meat in its own fat; pour off some of fat and then add onion, mushrooms and garlic, sauteing until onions are golden.

Perhaps the best known of all bulgur dishes, Tabbouleh TABBOULEH (6 to 8 servings) 1 cup bulgur 3 medium tomatoes, chopped 1 bunch green onions, chopped 3 cups chopped parsely 1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped 1/2 cup olive oil 4 to 6 tablespoons lemon juice Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste Lettuce leaves Cinnamon

Wash the bulgur; cover with hot water and allow to stand for 30 minutes. Drain thoroughly and then squeeze dry with hands. Chop the vegetables and mint together. Beat in the oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and mix with bulgur until wellblended. Serve in lettuce-lined salad bowl, preferably glass, sprinkled with cinnamon. Or pass cinnamon separately. KASHA (Buckwheat Groats) (About 3 cups) 1 cup uncooked groats 1 egg 2 cup hot liquid (water, chicken, beef or vegetable broth) Salt to taste

In heavy-bottomed saucepan stir the egg with groats until egg is thoroughly blended. Place over medium heat stir constantly, until grains are separated and dry. Pour in liquid (can be boiling), salt to taste, bring to boil and reduce heat to simmer. Cover and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until groats are tender and all liquid is absorbed.

Note: 1/2 cup chopped onion can be added along with the broth. KASHA AND VEGETABLE SIDE DISH (3 servings) 3 cups cooked groats (1 cup uncooked), see recipe 1/2 green pepper, chopped 1 medium onion, chopped 1 cup chopped cauliflower or broccoli 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg Salt and pepper to taste 1 cup coarsely grated muenster or monterey jack cheese

While the groats are cooking, saute the pepper, onion and cauliflower in hot oil until soft. Mix with the groats, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Sprinkle on the cheese and mix well to melt the cheese. Serve.

Note: any vegetable that is in your refrigerator can be used in place of the cauliflower. MEXICAN SKILLET KASHA (6 to 8 servings) 1 pound ground beef 1 cup chopped onion 1/4 cup chopped celery 1/2 cup chopped green pepper 1 1/2 cup water 3/4 cup uncooked kasha 1 can (16 ounces) tomatoes, broken up Salt and pepper to taste 1 teaspoon molasses 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce Dash hot pepper sauce 1/2 teaspoon chili powder

In skillet cook ground beef, onion, green pepper and celery until meat is browned and vegetables are tender. Spoon off all except 2 tablespoons of excess fat. Stir in kasha until grains are moistened. Add remaining ingredients. Cover and simmer for 25 to 35 minutes, until kasha is tender. Stir mixture occasionally and add extra liquid if necessary.