AN AMERICAN who recently visited Majorca -- o ne of the four major Balearic islands off Spain's Mediterranean coast--ordered a regional specialty called sopa mallorquina at a local restaurant. When the dish arrived, she put down her spoon. "This is not at all what I expected," she said. "When I order something called 'sopa,' I expect soup. There's no liquid at all in this dish."

What the visitor discovered was one of a variety of local dry soups called sopas secas. The label may appear to be a contradiction in terms, but the word soup is actually related to the Old English world sop, meaning a small piece of bread. In fact, soups on the Balearic Islands are often "dried out" by pouring them over slices of dense, two-day-old bread, a process that absorbs all of the liquid and transforms the dish into a thick, very filling stew.

Bread is central to the peasant diet that still survives on the four main Balearic islands--Majorca, Ibiza, Minorca, and Formentera. The majestic windmills that dot the landscape are steady reminders of the wheat fields below. It is the bounty of these fields that produces the Balearics' no-nonsense, whole-wheat bread, with its thick crust and dense crumb.

Ernesto Fajarnes serves many local dishes in his charming hotel-restaurant, Hacienda na Xamena. The spectacular view from the hotel--steep, hoary crags poised over hundred-foot drops into the sea--explains at a glance the demanding lives of the fishing and farming islanders and the resultant simplicity of their most typical dishes.

Many dishes, explained Fajarnes, rely on the straightforward, pleasing taste of fresh produce. A strong, flavorful olive oil is pressed from the local crop, and it is the main cooking fat, he said. Cooked dishes often start out with a sofrito, made by sau te'ing onions, garlic and tomatoes in olive oil.

On these islands, where olive trees have been known to reach a thousand years of age, the hearty peasant cookery has survived the influx of tourists and resultant interest in continental cuisine. At La Granja, a "living-history" farm on Majorca that recreates life on the island as it was 200 years ago, a young woman dressed in traditional peasant garb stirs soup in an iron cauldron over a wood fire. She is preparing sopa mallorquina, the local "dry" soup.

A few miles away, in the nearby village of Esporles, you can have lunch at the Hostal Central. There you can order sopa mallorquina and taste the same hearty regional specialty.

It's a comfort to know that some things never change. SOPES DE COL A LA MALLORQUINA (Majorcan Cabbage Soup) (8 servings)

This economical, easy-to-make and tasty soup is traditionally served over thin slices of whole-wheat bread. When the modest amount of broth is absorbed by the bread, the whole mixture becomes rather thick and stewlike--very characteristic of Majorcan sopas secas, or dry soups. It is simple and satisfying and, with a salad, is perfect for a light dinner. 1 large leek 1/4 cup olive oil, preferably Spanish 2 teaspoons finely minced garlic 1 large onion (about 12 ounces), coarsely chopped 4 large, ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped (substitute 7 to 8 canned plum tomatoes, drained and chopped) 1 small cabbage (about 2 pounds) 1/2 teaspoon salt, approximately 8 thin slices dense whole-wheat bread (preferably homemade), two days old Additional olive oil

Clean the leek thoroughly to remove the sand. Cut off the green tail and reserve. Chop the white coarsely. Heat the oil in a very large soup pot. Fry the leek (white part only), garlic and onion over medium heat, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook an additional minute.

Quarter the cabbage, then cut into thin strips along the narrow edge. Place the leek greens on top of the onion-tomato mixture in the pot and then set the chopped cabbage on top of the leek greens. Pour 4 cups water on top and sprinkle with salt. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, covered, until cabbage is tender, about 12 to 15 minutes.

To serve, remove the leek greens. Place a slice of bread at the bottom of 8 individual onion soup bowls (or a large earthenware tureen with a cover). Spoon the soup on top, cover, and let sit for about 5 minutes. Dribble an additional teaspoon of olive oil on top of each portion and serve. CALDERA MENORQUINA DE PESCADO (Minorcan Fish Stew) (4 servings)

This simple-to-make and very appealing stew is the basic island preparation for the catch of the day. Cod steaks, while common in New England, are fairly rare here. Substitute a mild, light fish if they prove difficult to find. Minorcans usually spoon the liquid over thin slices of bread for the first course. Then they eat the fish for an entree. You may prefer to serve the entire stew in deep bowls as the main course. 1/4 cup olive oil 1 large onion (about 12 ounces), coarsely chopped 2 teaspoons finely minced garlic 6 peeled plum tomatoes plus approximately 1 cup of the juice in which they are packed 1/4 cup finely minced parsley Generous pinch cayenne papper Salt to taste 4 cod steaks (substitute other mild-flavored fish steaks or fillets) 4 thin slices dense whole-wheat bread (preferably homemade), two days old

In a large stew pot, heat the olive oil. Saute' the onions and garlic for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the tomatoes, juice, parsley and cayenne and simmer over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add salt, if desired.

Bury the fish steaks or fillets under the sauce. Cover the pot and cook over medium heat until the fish is cooked throughout and easily flakes, about 10 minutes. (Timing will depend on thickness of the steak.)

Set a slice of bread in each of 4 bowls. Spoon the sauce on the bread and set the codfish steak slightly to the side. OLLA FRESCA (Ibizan Vegetable Soup) (6 to 8 servings)

The faintly exotic flavor of the soup comes from pears and cinnamon, a culinary survival of the period of Arab domination in Spain. 3 tablespoons olive oil (preferably Spanish) 1 medium onion (about 9 ounces), coarsely chopped 1 teaspoon finely minced garlic 2 large potatoes, scrubbed and cut into eighths 1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and halved 6 cups rich chicken stock 10-ounce package frozen lima beans, defrosted 3 large, firm ripe pears, peeled, cored and quartered 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon Generous pinch saffron (optional) Small pinch cayenne pepper Salt to taste

Heat the oil in a large soup pot. Fry the onion and garlic for about 3 minutes. Add the potatoes, green beans and stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes, uncovered. Add the lima beans, pears and spices and continue to simmer until the vegetables are quite soft, about 20 to 30 minutes more. Adjust seasonings and serve hot.