You Don't mind the being away so much. You get used to it. Even years at a time in foreign plces you learn to bear. But always near the end you begin counting the days; reaching, straining for the comin' home.

And always after being gone so long there is something you see or feel or taste, something that is more about the coming home than anything else. Something to make you think what it was you missed.

On three different occasions I was in foreign countries for many months. Each time I celebrated coming home with hashed brown potatoes.

I fired up the biggest, heaviest skillet, threw in the potatoes and showered them with spices and affection. And when they were blessed with golden crispness, I ate, recharging my spiritual batteries.

This was home. This was America. These were hashed browns!

Becoming emotionally attached to hashed brown potatoes ensures disappointment, however. No one, it seems, makes hashed browns to suit my taste. And the number of sloppy imitations being passed off is appalling.

The institution is simply peeling away at the edges.

I remember the worst very clearly. It was at a time when a friend and I often hustled the pool-room amateurs into the morning hours. One night we stopped for an early breakfast at a greasy spoon popular among the night people. I ordered two eggs, scrapple and hashed browns.

I was certain the waitress had gotten the order confused. When my plate was served, I saw on it what appeared to be a spoonful of greasy buckshot. To find out what they were, I called the waitress back and asked, specifically now, for a side of hashed bowns. She returned with more of the same.

You could have brought down a charging bull with one of them.

There are times when sinking your teeth into the local version of hashed browns is like biting into raw mackeral. The toasted outside merely conceals a spongy potato puree.

Others are nothing more than shoe-string potatoes forced to submit to a patty shape.

I have seen perfect over-easy eggs scramble and die at the sight of poorly cooked hashed browns.

Hashed bowns are sensitive and impressionable. Even the slightest culinary affectation completely alters their disposition. Cook them alone with sauteed onions, for instance, and they become potatoes lyonnaise. Add red and green peppers, they turn into potatoes O'brien. Serve them at brunch with a Bloody Mary in Georgetown and they wilt into "home fries." Pour in wheat germ and you have Dorango potatoes. Slice them the wrong way, add sour cream and smother them in paprika: Hungarian potatoes.

For years some cookbooks have been calling them Roesti, the Swiss version, which is impossible to pronounce and eat at the same time (pucker and say rooshty ).

Certainly there is no one way to cook perfect hashed browns. Various cooks add chopped almonds, mushrooms, filberts, fennel, dill, walnuts, bacon, sesame seeds, flour, cream or chili powder. They will probably never resolve whether the potatoes should initially be chopped up, diced or coarsely grated. ("Hash" derives from the French verb hacher , to chop or mince.)

But some standard must be established.

Hashed browns should be neither very greasy, nor very dry; they should be neither crunchy crisp, nor sickly soft; they should be neither squashed into a pancake, nor allowed to separate randomly; they should be neither bland, nor spiced into oblivion.

Hashed browns shoudl be as thoroughly browned as possible. They should be seasoned with care.

Most recipes demand cooked potatoes, usually boiled, for the hash. And for good reason. Raw potatoes are full of starch and though lovely to behold fresh from the grater, they become a gray gooey mess in the pan. Blanching them in boiling water removes the starch, true. But then yo face the problem of getting the water out.

A lot of bother.

Potatoes also will acquire the taste of whatever cooking oil you put in the skillet. Though vegetable oil, shortening, butter, olive oil and bacon drippings are all acceptable, care should be taken to choose one that you enjoy. COMING HOME HASHED BROWNS (4 servings) 6 medium size Idaho potatoes, boiled with skins. 6 tablespoons butter 1 small onion, finely chopped 2 large cloves garlic, minced 1 tablespoon fresh parsely, chopped 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon Pinch red cayenne pepper (or to taste) Half lemon Salt Pepper Paprika

Peel and coarsely grate cooled potatoes. Gently saute onions and garlic in butter until the onions are clear. Turn heat up to medium, add potatoes, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, parsley, tarragon, a squeeze of lemon and stir for a few minutes, or until potatoes begin to turn brown.

From the edges of the pan, gather the potatoes together and pat into a pancake shape. Do not press them down hard. Sprinkle paprika and a squeeze of lemon over the top. Allow to cook for approximately 5 minutes, or until the bottom froms a thin, golden crust. Break the potatoes up with a spatla and thoroughly remix them. Gather them into a pancake shape again and repeat this process two or three times, or until there are browned potatoes throughout.

When the bottom again forms a light crust, turn the cake by inverting a plate over the skillet, flipping the pan and sliding the cake back in, brown side up.

Allow bottom to brown. Cut with a knife into four portions. HURRY UP HASHED BROWNS (4 servings) 6 medium size potatoes, cooked 5 to 6 tablespoons bacon fat or vegetable oil Salt Pepper

Peel cooled potatoes and chop into small chunks. Pre-heat oil in large skillet. Add potatoes, salt and pepper to taste and cook over medium heat, stirring contnuously.Cook until potato chunks are golden brown on all sides. Seasoning with paprika will add brown coloring as well as a mild spicy flavor.