When people think of cooked greens, they usually think "soul food." Images come to mind of cast-iron cauldrons filled with collards, kale, mustard greens or turnip tops, flavored with salt pork or smoked ham simmering on the stove all day.

And it is true that the slaves brought with them from Africa the seeds, plants and styles of cooking leafy green vegetables that long ago eased into mainstream southern cuisine. But greens have long carried with them the stigma of poverty -- and not only in the United States -- which has kept them from being universally appreciated.

Cabbage has always been associated with hard times in Europe, especially during World War II when many Germans lived on little else. The English turn up their noses at kale, though it has always been popular in Holland, Germany, Scandinavia and Scotland. Nicknaming it cow cabbage, the English have used the coarse-textured vegetable as animal fodder. They feel the same way about kale that Samuel Johnson felt about oats, another Scottish staple. The prejudiced definition for oats recorded in his great dictionary would seem to reflect as well the English attitude toward kale: " ... England is generally given to horses but in Scotland supports the people."

Despite cooked greens' low-class reputation, the recent interest in American regional cooking and in ethnic cuisines has brought them onto the menus of chic restaurants and into the kitchens of experimental cooks. Reflecting this changing attitude, recent cookbooks include many interesting recipes for preparing greens in a multitude of ways.

The Italian method of saute'ing escarole and swiss chard in olive oil with garlic (and sometimes pignoli nuts and raisins) can be used for other greens as well to produce a delicious hot or cold side dish. Steaming or braising tougher greens such as kale and collards makes them tender and flavorful.

Chopped spinach can be stirred into soups and omelets or pure'ed for souffle's. Dishes cooked with spinach the French call "florentine," a legacy from the days of Catherine de Medici's sojourn in France.

Nutritionally greens are a great value for their price. Most are good sources of vitamins A and and C, folic acid, calcium, iron and potassium. And greens are a dieter's dream, with a filling cup of cooked vegetable containing between 20 and 50 calories, depending on the type.

Curly leafed kale is the main ingredient in the Portuguese green soup named caldo verde and in the caldo gallego of Spain. Ethiopian yegomen kifto combines spinach with buttermilk curds. No self-respecting Brazilian feijoada completa is really complete without chopped collards. In Chinese cooking, peking cabbage, bok choy, choi sum (flowering cabbage) and ong choi (water spinach) may be stir-fried then flavored with oyster sauce. And sweet-and-sour spicy cabbage salad is a Thai favorite.

Most greens are available year round, though kale is best during cold months and swiss chard in spring through fall. When buying vegetables such as collards, kale, chard, mustard greens and chinese cabbages, look for firm leaves without yellow edges. Avoid limp, wilted or dried out greens. Store them wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator and use them as soon as possible. Head cabbage, white or red, may be kept longer in the vegetable bin.

Since leafy greens usually trap sand in their crevices, wash them well under cool running water to remove debris. Then strip the leaves from the stems. Although the tough stems of kale, collards, mustard and turnip greens will be discarded, with swiss chard the stems are more highly valued than the leaves. Remove and discard the core of head cabbage.

One important rule to follow: to prevent the interaction of chemicals, do not cook the vegetables in aluminum or iron pans.

BABY BEETS OR TURNIP TOPS PRIME PLUS (4 servings)

Chef David Arbuckle of Prime Plus says he had been discarding the tender tops of the baby turnips and beets he used to garnish his plates at the Washington restaurant until he decided to saute' them as a vegetable. They may be cooked separately or together.

1 1/2 pound pancetta or 4 strips bacon, cooked and diced

8 whole shallots or 1 whole head garlic, skin on

2 teaspoons olive oil

2 tablespoons bacon fat or olive oil

Tops from 12 bunches baby turnips or beets, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Cook pancetta or bacon, drain and dice. Roll shallots or garlic (or a combination of the two) in olive oil and bake in a 400-degree oven 5 minutes or until tender but still firm.

Squeeze to separate skin from shallots or separate garlic into cloves and squeeze out pulp. In a large skillet heat bacon fat, add shallots or garlic and saute' 1 minute. Add chopped greens and saute' 5 minutes. Add diced bacon and season with salt and pepper.

CALDO VERDE (8 servings)

In her colorfully illustrated, beautifully printed new book, "Pleasures of the Table" (Harry Abrams, 1986), Florence Fabricant places this Portuguese greens and potato soup at the center of a Portuguese brunch. She explains that though kale or common cabbage leaves are traditional, savoy cabbage, spinach, swiss chard, collards or turnip greens (or a combination) may be substituted.

1/2 pound linguica, chorizo or kielbasa sausage

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 large onion, diced

4 to 5 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/2-inch thick

Salt and pepper to taste

5 cups packed very finely shredded greens (about 10 ounces)

Place sausage in a heavy 3- to 4-quart saucepan, add 1/3 cup water and cook until water has evaporated. Add 2 tablespoons oil and saute' sausage over medium heat until it is just beginning to brown. Remove sausage and slice into rounds. Add onion to pan and saute' over low heat until soft but not brown. Add potatoes and 8 cups water. Bring to a boil, add salt and cook until potatoes are very soft, about 15 minutes. Drain potatoes and mash with a fork. Return to pan and stir to dissolve in liquid. Season with pepper. Add greens, sausage and 4 tablespoons oil. Bring to a boil and simmer 5 minutes. Drizzle about 1 teaspoon oil on top of each serving of soup.

CABBAGE ROLLS (4 to 6 servings)

In his first book, "Patout's Cajun Home Cooking" (Random House, 1986), Louisiana chef Alex Patout describes this spicy stuffed cabbage as a traditional Cajun dish.

1 large head white cabbage

1 pound ground beef

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground red pepper

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup chopped scallions

1/2 cup chopped parsley

2 cups raw rice

2 8-ounce cans tomatoes

2 16-ounce cans tomato sauce

1 cup water

Core cabbage and place in a large saucepan of boiling water, base side down. Remove each cabbage leaf as it comes loose. Combine beef, salt, peppers, garlic, scallions and parsley. Add rice and mix well. Form mixture into 24 cylinders about 2 inches long and 1 inch in diameter. Roll each cylinder in a cabbage leaf, tucking in ends to seal stuffing completely.

Line the bottom of a dutch oven with a layer of remaining cabbage leaves. Layer cabbage rolls on top. Drain tomatoes and place in a large bowl. Break them up with your fingers and stir in tomato sauce and water. Pour over cabbage rolls and cover with a layer of cabbage leaves. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook 1 hour and 45 minutes. Add more water, if needed.

ESCAROLE STEWED IN CREAM (6 servings)

2 heads escarole

3 tablespoons butter

2 medium onions, thinly sliced

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup whipping cream

Bread crumbs browned in butter

Chopped parsley for sprinkling

Paprika for sprinkling

Wash escarole without separating leaves. Shake off excess water. Cut crosswise in 1/2-inch strips. Melt butter in a saucepan and add escarole and onion. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat, 15 to 20 minutes, shaking pan several times. When escarole is limp, stir in cream. Serve hot, garnished with bread crumbs, parsley and a sprinkling of paprika.

From "Memoirs of a Cook" by Mildred Knopf (Atheneum, 1986). SAVOY CABBAGE SLAW (6 servings)

The spirit of Hay Day, Connecticut's popular country farm markets, is reflected in "The Hay Day Cookbook" by Maggie Stearns with seasonal recipes by Sallie Y. Williams (Atheneum, 1986). Coleslaw made with crinkly savoy cabbage is a spring dish.

1 small head savoy cabbage, cored and thinly shredded

1 red bermuda onion, thinly sliced

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon sweet mustard

Salt to taste

1/2 cup safflower oil

1/4 cup pecans, chopped

Toss cabbage and onion together well. Mix vinegar, mustard, salt and oil in a saucepan. Boil 5 minutes and pour over cabbage. Sprinkle with pecans and toss until thoroughly coated. Allow to stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.

ETHIOPIAN SPICED SPINACH (4 servings)

Marlene Spieler, author of "Hot and Spicy" (Jeremy Tarcher, 1985), says the spinach in this dish is "not masked by spice but enhanced by it."

1 onion, chopped

1 tablespoon butter

1 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 to 1 teaspoon berbere' or 3 to 4 small dried red chilies

2 bunches fresh spinach

Salt to taste

Saute' onion in butter. Add turmeric and berbere' or chilies and cook until onion is translucent. Precook spinach 2 to 3 minutes. Drain and coarsely chop. Stir spinach into onion mixture and cook a few minutes to meld flavors and evaporate excess water. Add salt.

SAUSAGES AND MUSTARD GREENS WITH SPAGHETTI (2 servings)

In her uncommonly useful book, "Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables" (Harper and Row, 1986) which describes the unusual produce appearing in supermarkets, Elizabeth Schneider says that the bitter mustard greens in this rustic dish are set off by the sweet sausages and bland pasta.

3/4 to 1 pound sweet Italian sausages

1 pound small mustard greens (or 1 1/2 pounds large, leggy ones, stripped from stalk)

1/2 cup water

Salt to taste

1/2 pound spaghetti

1 tablespoon olive oil

Vinegar to taste

Pepper to taste

Prick sausage. Cook, covered, in a large flameproof casserole with a thin layer of water for 5 minutes or until no longer pink. Uncover and cook over moderate heat, turning often, until browned on all sides. Transfer to a board. Chop mustard leaves. Put in casserole and cook over high heat until wilted. Add water and salt and simmer, partly covered, 15 minutes or until tender. Slice sausages and add. Stir over moderate heat, uncovered, until liquid evaporates. Meanwhile, boil spaghetti until tender and drain. Toss in a heated bowl with oil. Add greens and sausages. Season with vinegar and pepper.

ELIZABETH SCHNEIDER'S BRAISED COLLARDS WITH GINGER AND CHILI PEPPER (3 to 4 servings)

1 pound collard greens, cut into thin strips

2 cups chicken broth

3 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup chopped onion

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 jalapenåo pepper, seeds removed, minced

Black pepper to taste

Combine collards and broth in a pan. Simmer, covered, until tender but not mushy. Timing will vary but 35 minutes is average. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet and add onion and garlic. Soften slightly over moderate heat. Add ginger and jalapenåo and stir 1 minute. Add collards and stir over moderate heat until liquid has almost evaporated. Remove from heat, stir in remaining butter and black pepper.