YOU PROBABLY know the story: Some soldiers come into town, hungry from their travails. But the townspeople have hidden all their provisions. Well, never mind, the soldiers say, nothing else to eat, we'llmake stone soup. wJust bring us a kettle of water. They take a big stone, clean it off, drop it in the pot. The townspeople gather, skeptical but curious. The soldiers stir the pot. Stone soup really is good, they say. Of course, it's better with a few onion thrown in. You know, says one burgher, I think I might be able to scrape up a few onions. That would be great, say the soldiers. Now, a bit of ham would make the soup even more delicious. Say, a young mother says, maybe I could find . . . you get the point. Stone soup is delicious.

Older cookbooks are forever telling you to keep a pot pie in the freezer in case unexpected company shows up. I know few people who take the necessary precautions. Company or no, then, you find yourself hungry, and there's only a stone in the icebox.

Well, actually, you just might have a couple of onions at the back of the counter, a slightly wilted celery stalk in the vegetable bin. And there is half a cup of rice at the bottom of the canister. If you rummage around on the top shelf, you could probably scare up an old jar of bouillon cubes. Your stone soup may end up resembling a wonderful Italian celery-rice soup.

When I was in college, we had a regular, more-than-peanut-butter snacks. One was Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner. The other was Chinese fried rice.

A box of macaroni and cheese represents one approach to the problem of standby meals. You can find lots of hints about what to do with condensed mushroom soup, processed cheese spread, and canned onion rings. If you have these items in the house, use them.

Fried rice is another matter. Since half the people in my college household were on Zen diets and the rest of us were, in any case, trying to eat as cheaply as possible, there was always at least half a pot of cold rice in the refrigerator. With whatever else we could dig up -- a little pork or chicken, carrots, celery, cabbage, scallions, bean sprouts, mushrooms on special occasions, plus a couple of eggs and some soy sauce, we fried up big batches of the stuff at late-night study breaks and Saturday afternoon congregations. Those who couldn't eat fast enough with chopsticks used forks. c

Pasta can be dressed up in hundreds of ways.Don't you almost have some form of macaroni in the kitchen? I love pasta enough to be satisfied with a dish of plain buttered noodles. But you can saute some finely chopped or pressed garlic in a generous amount of olive oil; add, say tuna fish from a can, or anchovies, sardines, capers, olives, parsley, chopped broccoli, cauliflower, onions, green peppers, or zucchini; toss this simple sauce with some hot, drained spaghetti; and figure out of the Italian name for the dish. Try combinations, too.

Do you have an egg or two in the refrigerator door? Saute some diced bacon and onions in a little oil or butter, or if you have no bacon, just a lot of thinly sliced onions. If you have no onions, use garlic, or scallions. Even chives can work. Lightly beat the eggs in a large bowl with some parmesan and/or romano cheese, if you have it. Add the hot, drained pasta, all at once, and toss to coat. Then add the hot bacon and onion, with the hot oil from sauteing, and toss the pasta some more. Season with a lot of pepper and salt to taste. This is pasta carbonara, a classic dish. Some crushed hot red pepper will spark it up. White wine bubbled down in the frying pan won't hurt. Use diced ham instead of bacon if you want. Use anchovies instead of bacon and don't call it carbonara.

If you have a can of tomatoes, you don't have nothing in the house. If you don't have a can of tomatoes, you can probably substitute, in varying amounts, tomato paste, tomato puree, or tomato sauce. We're not talking about a birthday dinner for Julia Child. Nouvelle cuisine has made slivers very chic. For another pasta sauce, saute slivers of whatever vegetables you have around in some butter or olive oil, and cook the mixture half an hour or so, uncover, over a fairly high heat, so the sauce thickens just a bit and the vegetables stay a little crunchy. Add some slivers of cooked meat at the end, if you are so moved. As usual, a white wine or dry vermouth can help. And maybe some seasonings -- basil with zucchini, marjoram with carrots, rosemary with garlic and onions.

If you don't have any pasta in the house, you could take an egg, a cup or so of flour, and start kneading. I'm only saying it's possible.

I love oatmeal. Not so much as a breakfast cereal, but as a cheap, interesting ingredient in everthing from soup to dessert. Soup? One of the easiest, most delicious soups I've discovered by the three stars next to the recipe in the "New York Times Bread and Soup Cookbook," which mean, Yvonne Young Tarre says, "recipes I've been asked to prepare most often." If you don't tell people what's in the soup until after they've tasted it -- better yet, make them guess -- they will always ask for the recipe (perhaps to make sure you weren't putting them on.) The soup is buttery, garlicky, heartwarming; and it's a rare night and that I can't come up with a half cup of oatmeal and a can of tomatoes.

And of course, there are oatmeal bread, oatmeal muffins, Maida Heatter's chewy oatmeal brownies, oatmeal in your apple crisp. By the way, fruit crisps are a quick treat to construct. One part butter or margarine, two parts sugar -- white or brown, two parts flour -- white or whole-wheat, and maybe some cinnamon make the topping. Just cut them together in your food processor, if you have one, or with your fingers if you don't. If you haven't used up your oatmeal in the soup, or if you have oatmeal but not enough flour, add a quarter cup or so to the topping; it will be nice and crunchy. Add nuts if there some around, raisins if you like. Then cut up those apples that have begun to shrivel a bit in your bin, a few peaches or plums that you won't be able to eat before they spoil, or even take a leftover can of whole cranberry sauce. Spread the fruit in a greased baking dish, sprinkle with a bit of sugar, cover with the streusel topping, an bake for a half an hour.

The idea is to experiment freely with substitutes for ingredients you don't have on hand. I suspect you are likely to have half-bottles of capers and half-packages of nuts when you are out of more mundane items like eggs and flour. So even if you can't get your neighbors to share their hams and cabbages, there are usually enough scraps and staples around the kitchen of anyone who cooks somewhat regularly to provide a snack, a meal, or a celebration. CELERY RICE SOUP (4 servings) 2 cups celery, diced (stalks and leaves) 1/4 cup onion, finely chopped 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup raw white rice or 1 to 1 1/2 cups cooked rice 3 cups beef stock or 2 beef bouillon cubes dissolved in 3 cups water 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese 2tablespoons parsley, chopped

Saute the celery and onion in the olive oil and butter until tender. Add the rice; stir until it is translucent and starting to turn opaque again. Pour in the stock or the bouillon cubes dissolved in 3 cups of water. Simmer 20 minutes. If the rice is not tender, simmer a few minutes more. Just before serving, stir in the cheese and the parsley. FRIED RICE (2 servings) 3 tablespoons vegetable oil 1/4 to 1/2 cup pork, chicken, or shrimp, finely diced 1/4 cup celery, finely diced 1/4 cup carrot, finely diced 1/4 cup onion, finely diced or 2 scallions, cut in 1/4-inch pieces 1/4 cup cabbage or mushrooms, thinly sliced (optional) 1/4 cup bean sprouts (optional) 2 cups cold boiled rice 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons soy sauce 1 egg, lightly beaten

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a wok or a large frying pan over high heat until very hot. If you are using raw meat, add it to the pan first; stir-fry for 1 minute or until barely cooked through. Add the celery, carrot, and onion (if you are using scallions, wait before adding them). Stir-fry 30 seconds or so. If you are adding cabbage or mushrooms, add them and stir-fry another 30 seconds. Then add scallions and/or bean sprouts, and toss for a few seconds more.

Break up any clumps of cold rice and add the rice to the vegetables. Toss to coat rice with oil and heat through. Add the sugar, salt, and soy sauce, and mix these seasonings in evenly.

Push the rice mixture to the sides of the pan, leaving an empty circle in the middle. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil. Then pour in the beaten egg. Stir the egg until it begins to set; then quickly stir in the rice. Some of the egg will coat the rice and some of the egg will scramble into little clumps. Taste for seasoning; add more soy sauce or salt to taste; and serve very hot. MEXICAN OATMEAL SOUP (3 servings) 1/2 cup rolled oats 1 medium onion, finely chopped 3 tablespoons butter 2 cloves garlic, crushed or chopped 1 small can of tomatoes 2 cups chicken bouillon cubes dissolved in 2 cups water Salt to taste

Toast the oats in a heavy skillet over medium heat, without any grease, until they start to turn a light nut brown; watch them carefully, because they burn easily. Remove the oats from the pan and set aside.

Saute the onion in the butter until translucent; add the garlic toward the end. Stir in the oats unitl they are well coated with butter. Chop the tomatoes and add them; then add the chicken broth or the bouillon cubes dissolved in 2 cups of water.

Simmer the mixture 1/2 hour or so. Add salt to taste.