Winter is the season of the produce doldrums, when almost everything green is imported "airline food" and there are only so many root vegetable dishes in anyone's repertoire. So, winter is a great opportunity to explore the endless variety of the basic bean.

From the fermented black beans used for seasoning by the Chinese to the frijoles refritos served as a favorite side dish by Mexicans to the dal used in Indian curries, beans are important to cuisines worldwide. And, to make a French cassoulet, an Italian pasta con fagioli or all-American pork and beans requires knowing how to handle these dried vegetable seeds.

Now that oat bran mania has subsided, people are realizing that equally beneficial results in reducing cholesterol may be achieved with lowly legumes, which are often maligned despite being a cholesterol-free source of protein that is high in fiber.

It's best to use beans that have been packed in small bags, and that are not very old. Stale beans take far longer to cook and may never get soft. While chick peas triple in volume and weight, most beans double, and the rule is that one cup of dry beans becomes two cups when soaked and cooked. Before using beans, rinse them in a colander or sieve under cold running water, and pick through them to discard any broken beans, pebbles or other debris that might have found their way into the bag.

While smaller beans such as lentils and split peas require no prior soaking, and can merely be simmered once rinsed, most beans should be soaked both to speed cooking time and preserve the nutrients that long hours of simmering destroys. Never add salt to the soaking water since that toughens the seed coat and prevents water absorption.

If you decide in the morning or anytime, really, on a dish that requires the cooking of beans, just cover them in water and let them sit for at least four hours. While many recipes, old and more recent, call for soaking overnight, beans actually stop absorbing cold water after four to six hours, so that is a sufficient amount.

An alternative is to bring the rinsed beans to a boil in a covered saucepan, and boil them for one minute. Then remove the pan from the heat and allow the beans to soak for one hour without uncovering the pan.

When using this hot soak method, cook the beans as soon as the soaking time passes, since bacteria can form in the warm water.

The other caveats of bean cookery are to make sure beans are cooked to the proper consistency before adding any acidic ingredient, such as tomatoes or lemon. Acid added sooner prevents the beans from becoming tender.

WHITE BEAN SOUP (8 servings)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup diced onion

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

1 celery stalk, sliced

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1/2 cup diced country ham or prosciutto

3/4 pound dried cannelliniSTART NOTE: END NOTE or navy beans, rinsed, picked over and soaked

2 tablespoons fresh chopped rosemary, or 2 teaspoons dried rosemary

8 cups chicken stock

1/2 teaspoon pepper

Salt, to taste

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic and ham and saute', stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Add the beans, rosemary, chicken stock and pepper, and bring to a boil. Simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Taste the cooking liquid, and add enough salt so that it becomes slightly salty (the amount needed will vary depending on the type of ham used for seasoning).

Recover the pot and simmer for 40 to 60 minutes, or until the beans are soft.

Pure'e the mixture in a food processor fitted with the steel blade or in a blender. Serve hot.

Note: The soup can be made up to three days in advance and refrigerated, tightly covered. It will probably thicken from the starch in the beans, and can be thinned to the desired consistency with some stock when reheated.

Per serving: 149 calories, 11 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 6 mg cholesterol, 919 mg sodium.

STEWED RED BEANS (8 servings)

1 pound dried red kidney beans

3 smoked pork or ham hocks

1 pound kielbasa, or other smoked pork sausage, cut into 1/2-inch slices

4 celery stalks, chopped

2 large onions, peeled and chopped

1 large green bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed, and chopped

2 teaspoons minced garlic

3 bay leaves

1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt (depending on how salty the pork or ham is)

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1 teaspoon thyme

1 teaspoon oregano

1 to 2 teaspoons hot sauce, or to taste

Rinse the beans in a colander under cold running water, discarding any debris or broken beans. Either soak in cold water to cover for 4 to 6 hours, or bring to a boil and allow to sit, covered, for 1 hour. Drain.

Bring the beans and ham hocks to a boil with 2 quarts of water. Simmer covered for one hour, then remove the ham hocks, and drain the beans. When the ham hocks are cool enough to handle, remove the meat and discard the skin, fat and bones.

While the beans are simmering, brown the sausage in a skillet over medium heat. Remove the sausage with a slotted spoon, and add the celery, onion, green pepper and garlic to the pan. Saute' until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.

Place the beans, sausage, vegetables, ham meat, bay leaves, salt, pepper, thyme, oregano and hot sauce in a saucepan with 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, and cook for 45 to 60 minutes over low heat, stirring frequently especially toward the end of the cooking time. The mixture should be thick and the beans should have started to break up. Discard the bay leaves. Serve while hot.

Note: The beans can be prepared up to three days in advance and refrigerated, tightly covered with plastic wrap. Reheat in a microwave oven or in a 300-degree oven for 25 minutes.

Per serving: 319 calories, 20 gm protein, 15 gm carbohydrates, 20 gm fat, 7 gm saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 1362 mg sodium.

LAMB AND WHITE BEAN STEW (8 servings)

3 pounds boneless lamb stew meat

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup diced onions

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

1 tablespoon minced garlic

28-ounce can crushed tomatoes, with their juice

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon rosemary

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons minced parsley

1 cup dry red wine

2 cups beef stock

3 cups cooked great northern beans

Trim the meat of visible fat and gristle, and set aside.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Add the lamb and brown on all sides, being careful not to crowd the pan; this will have to be done in batches.

Remove the lamb with a slotted spoon, and place it in an oven-proof casserole. Add the remaining oil to the pan, and saute' the onions, carrot and garlic, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Scrape the mixture into the casserole with the lamb.

Add the tomatoes, thyme, rosemary, salt, pepper, parsley, wine and stock to the pan, and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Place the pan in the center of the oven and bake in a 350-degree oven for 2 1/2 hours, or until the lamb is beginning to become tender. Add the beans, and bake for 30 to 40 minutes.

Note: The stew is even better if made a day or two in advance and refrigerated tightly covered. Discard any fat that hardens on the top, and reheat in a 350-degree oven, stirring occasionally but gently so the beans don't break.

Per serving: 570 calories, 53 gm protein, 22 gm carbohydrates, 27 gm fat, 11 gm saturated fat, 178 mg cholesterol, 768 mg sodium.

TUNA AND BEAN SALAD (6 servings)

FOR THE BEANS:

2 cups dried white navy beans

2 quarts water

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons minced garlic

FOR THE SALAD:

1/4 pound snow peas, stringed and cut into thin strips

1 carrot, peeled and thinly sliced

1 celery stalk, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 red bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed and cut into thin strips

2 cans (6 1/2 ounces each) light tuna packed in oil

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Pinch of salt

Pinch of pepper

1/3 cup finely chopped scallions, white and green part

1/4 cup finely chopped parsley

TO SERVE:

Lettuce leaves

For the beans, either soak the beans 4 to 6 hours in the water, or bring them to a boil, simmer for 1 minute, then remove from the heat, cover the pot, and allow to sit undisturbed for 1 hour. With either method, then add the salt, pepper and garlic to the pot, bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 1 hour, or until they are tender, but still have texture. Drain, and chill.

For the salad: Have a bowl of ice water handy. Blanch the snow peas in boiling water for 1 minute, then drain and plunge into ice water to stop the cooking action.

Combine the chilled beans with the snow peas, carrot, celery and red bell pepper in a bowl. Flake in the tuna fish, including its oil, then add the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, scallions and parsley. Toss well to coat, then refrigerate, tightly covered with plastic wrap, until ready to serve.

To serve, cover plates with lettuce leaves, and mound the salad on top. Note: The salad can be prepared up to a day in advance and kept refrigerated, tightly covered with plastic wrap.

Per serving: 306 calories, 25 gm protein, 19 gm carbohydrates, 15 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 11 mg cholesterol, 283 mg sodium.

BAKED PORK AND BEANS (6 servings)

FOR THE BEANS:

1 cup dried red kidney beans

1 cup dried lima beans

1 cup dried pea beans

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

FOR THE PORK:

1 1/2 pounds boneless pork loin

1/2 teaspoon salt

Pinch of pepper

Pinch of allspice

1 teaspoon crumbled dried sage

1 teaspoon minced garlic

FOR THE DISH:

6 strips bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces

1/2 cup red onion

1/2 cup barbecue sauce

3/4 cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 cup grated mozzarella cheese

For the beans, either soak the beans 4 to 6 hours in the water, or bring them to a boil, simmer for 1 minute, then remove from the heat, cover the pot, and allow to sit undisturbed for 1 hour. With either method, then add the salt and pepper, bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 1 hour, or until they are tender but slightly crunchy. Drain, and set aside.

While the beans are simmering, mix the salt, pepper, allspice, sage and garlic together in a small bowl, and rub on the pork loin. Bake for 45 minutes in a 375-degree oven, or until slightly pink in the center. Cut into 1-inch cubes, and set aside.

To finish, saute' the bacon in a skillet over medium high heat until crisp. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon, and reserve. Discard all but 1/4 cup of the bacon grease. Saute' the onion over medium heat, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes, or until translucent. Scrape into a casserole, and combine with the cooked beans, pork and remaining ingredients.

Reduce the heat to 325 degrees and bake in the center of the oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving. Note: The dish can be made up to two days in advance and reheated, covered, in a 300-degree oven until hot, approximately 40 minutes.

Per serving: 612 calories, 47 gm protein, 52 gm carbohydrates, 24 gm fat, 9 gm saturated fat, 127 mg cholesterol, 805 mg sodium.

-- Ellen Brown is a Washington-based food writer and prize-winning author of "The Gourmet Gazelle Cookbook."