Occasionally I meet vegetarians who feel there's just not enough variety in their meals. Almost invariably it's because beans might as well never have been invented.

Look at any of the great cuisines -- Mediterranean, Chinese, Indian, Hispanic -- and you'll find that the dishes people eat day in and day out are bean dishes. Soybeans (tofu and tempeh too), pintos, split peas, lentils -- these are heart-healthy, nutritious foods. They are filling, diverse and tasty, wanting only the culinary genius that traditional cuisines have given them.

But are they ever neglected in our time-obsessed world. Anything that takes several hours to cook is out, and beans take time -- more time than most cooking charts will admit. This is why an electric slow cooker is essential for vegetarian cooking. It will pay for itself many times over merely by opening up the low-cost world of bean cookery.

Set up the pot before bed and you have perfectly cooked beans by morning. Beans in the morning might seem odd, but in fact beans make a great breakfast: wrapped in a tortilla, served over whole-grain toast. If you prefer, of course, you can set up the pot in the morning to prepare dinner.

Presoaking is a key. Soaking beans for several hours or overnight can cut the cooking time almost in half. Once beans become a staple, you'll find your self slipping into a half-conscious routine: soak the beans, put out the cat, set the alarm.

MANY BEANS STEW (Makes about 6 cups)

1 onion, chopped

1 clove garlic

1 tablespoon oil

1 1/2 teaspoons paprika

1/2 cup pinto beans

5 cups boiling water

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon celery seed

1/2 cup kidney beans

1/2 cup lima beans

1/2 cup yellow split peas

1 teaspoon dill weed

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 cups cubed vegetables: potatoes, carrots, green beans, celery, etc.

Saute' the onion and garlic in oil along with paprika. If you have a slow cooker, put all the ingredients in and simmer about 8 hours. If not, add the pinto beans and water, bay and celery seed, and bring to a boil. Simmer, partly covered, about an hour. Add kidney beans and lima beans and simmer another hour, then add remaining ingredients. Check and stir occasionally, especially toward the end, to make sure there is enough liquid to prevent burning. Simmer gently another hour, until done.

SWEDISH BEAN BALLS (Makes 12 balls, to serve 4)

1 1/2 cups cooked, well-drained beans (kidneys, pinto, or red)

1 cup chopped onion

1 bay leaf

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon lemon zest

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 slice whole-wheat bread, soaked in milk or water

1 egg, beaten

1/4 teaspoon thyme

Dash nutmeg

Dash cardamom

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup dry whole-wheat bread crumbs, if needed

FOR THE GRAVY:

1/3 cup whole-wheat flour

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 cups milk

1 cup water

Mash beans with potato masher, processor or meat grinder. Saute' onion and bay leaf in oil in a large skillet until the onion is golden. Remove about 1/4 cup of the saute'ed onion with a slotted spoon and add it to the beans along with lemon zest and juice. Squeeze all the liquid out of the bread (save it for the gravy), and work the bread into the mashed beans along with the egg, thyme, spices, and 1/4 teaspoon salt.

If you have time, chill the mixture; it's easier to shape the balls when cold. If it seems too loose, add the dry bread crumbs to stiffen it. Form 1 1/2-inch balls and place on greased baking sheet. Bake 10 minutes in a 350-degree oven until balls are dry and firm.

Meanwhile, make the gravy. Stir flour into reserved saute'ed onions and cook, stirring, until flour starts to brown. Add remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, pepper, and milk and water. Cook over medium-high flame, stirring frequently, until mixture begins to boil and thicken. Reduce heat to low and simmer another 7 or 8 minutes, stirring frequently.

Remove bean balls from baking sheet and place in the skillet, spooning gravy over them. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes before serving; serve over mashed potatoes.