Bears have the right idea. They just go into hibernation and wait for spring. In contrast, we must continue to function, regardless of the winter wind whipping about.

But there are some culinary efforts that can make the weather downright bearable, so to speak: stuffed flank steak, chicken pot pie, beef and pepper saute', stuffed chicken breasts, meat loaf -- in short, comfort food.

Comfort food got its descriptive name because it makes us smile at the hearty flavors, rich aromas and warm feeling we get from eating it. Even so, these dishes need not be high in fat or calories to conform to the definition.

There are many tricks to reducing the fat, while keeping the rich, hearty taste. Among the simplest is to add more vegetables than meat in stews. And, to facilitate removal of fat before serving, chill dishes for several hours or make a day or so ahead and then skim the congealed fat off before reheating.

Another trick is to substitute leaner poultry for fattier red meat in many hearty dishes.

These recipes are all comforting for cold winter nights:

SOUTHWESTERN STUFFED FLANK STEAK (6 servings)

1 1/2 pounds flank steak, in one piece

FOR THE MARINADE:

1 cup dry red wine

2 tablespoons fruity olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon cumin

1 tablespoon pure red chili powder

1/4 cup minced shallots

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 teaspoon salt

FOR THE STUFFING:

2 tablespoons oil

1/2 cup finely chopped red bell pepper

1/2 cup finely chopped green bell pepper

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1/2 cup corn bread stuffing mix

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/3 cup unsalted chicken stock

Cut a pocket into the center of the flank steak that extends to 1/2-inch of either side and the end. Combine the marinade ingredients, and marinate the flank steak for 2 hours at room temperature, turning occasionally, or overnight refrigerated.

For the stuffing, heat the oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Add the peppers, onion, and garlic and saute', stirring constantly, for 5 minutes, or until the peppers are soft. Add the stuffing mix, cumin, salt, pepper and stock, and toss to blend.

Remove the steak from the marinade and pat dry. Fill with the stuffing, securing the open end with toothpicks or skewers. Bake in the center of a preheated 400-degree oven for 45 minutes, then allow to rest for 10 minutes before carving. Carve and serve immediately. Note: The dish can also be served at room temperature or chilled.

Per serving: 358 calories, 25 gm protein, 12 gm carbohydrates, 22 gm fat, 6 gm saturated fat, 57 mg cholesterol, 474 mg sodium.

PARMESAN TURKEY LOAF (6 servings)

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup onions, peeled and finely chopped

1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped

1/4 cup plain bread crumbs

1/4 cup unsalted chicken stock

4 egg whites

1 pound turkey breast meat, ground or finely chopped in a food processor fitted with the steel blade

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon thyme

3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

Lightly oil a baking sheet.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium low heat. Add the onion and carrot and saute', stirring constantly, for 10 minutes, or until the carrots are almost soft. Combine the bread crumbs and chicken stock in a mixing bowl. Add the saute'ed vegetables and remaining ingredients. Mix well.

Form into a loaf on a baking sheet with an all-around edge to contain any liquid, and bake for 1 hour in a preheated 375-degree oven. Slice and serve immediately. Note: The loaf can also be served at room temperature or chilled.

Per serving: 179 calories, 27 gm protein, 5 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 66 mg cholesterol, 356 mg sodium.

BEEF AND PEPPER SAUTE (6 servings)

FOR THE MARINADE:

1 cup dry red wine

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/4 cup chopped onion

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon dried marjoram

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 bay leaf

1 1/2 pounds lean beef, such as tenderloin or flank steak

TO FINISH:

2 tablespoons fruity olive oil

1 each green, red and yellow bell peppers, seeds and ribs removed, and thinly sliced

1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced

2 stalks celery, trimmed and thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon salt

Pinch of pepper

Combine all ingredients for the meat marinade in a glass or stainless steel bowl. Chill the meat in the freezer for 30 minutes to facilitate slicing, and then slice the meat thinly against the grain. Marinate at room temperature for 2 hours, or in the refrigerator overnight.

Remove the meat from the marinade with a slotted spoon, and pat dry on paper towels. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a skillet over high heat. Add the meat, and stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the slices are cooked but still rare. Scrape into a bowl, and set aside.

Heat the remaining oil in the skillet, and stir-fry the peppers, onion and celery for 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are wilted. Add the meat back to the pan, stir briefly, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

Per serving: 368 calories, 22 gm protein, 7 gm carbohydrates, 25 gm fat, 9 gm saturated fat, 78 mg cholesterol, 274 mg sodium.

CHICKEN WITH MUSHROOMS (6 servings) 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast meat, cut into 1-inch cubes

12 large dried shiitake mushrooms

1/2 cup boiling water

1/4 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, trimmed and sliced

1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, rinsed, trimmed and halved if large

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1 1/2 cups unsalted chicken stock

1/3 cup dry Marsala

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried rosemary

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in skillet over medium high heat. Add the chicken and brown on all sides, being careful not to crowd the pan; this may have to be done in batches. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon, and reserve.

Soak the dried shiitakes in the boiling water, pushing them down with the back of a spoon. After 15 minutes, drain, reserving the soaking liquid. Discard the stems and slice the caps thinly.

Heat the remaining oil in the skillet, and saute' the fresh shiitakes for 2 minutes. Add the fresh mushrooms and garlic, and saute' for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, or until the mushrooms are browned.

Scrape the mushrooms into a saucepan, along with the chicken, sliced rehydrated shiitake and remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Serve immediately.

Note: The chicken can be made up to three days in advance and refrigerated, tightly covered with plastic wrap. Reheat it over a low flame or in a microwave oven.

Per serving: 299 calories, 41 gm protein, 10 gm carbohydrates, 10 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 97 mg cholesterol, 470 mg sodium.

CHICKEN POT PIE WITH PHYLLO CRUST (6 servings)

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1 cup thinly sliced mushrooms

2 tablespoons flour

1 cup milk

1 cup unsalted chicken stock

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon thyme

Pinch of pepper

2 cups cooked chicken, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 cup cooked potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1/2 cup fresh peas (or frozen peas, defrosted)

6 sheets phyllo dough

Vegetable oil spray

Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter in a skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion and mushrooms and saute', stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, and set aside.

Melt the remaining butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir in the flour, and stir over low heat for 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk and stock, and bring to a boil, whisking until smooth. Stir in the salt, thyme and pepper.

Combine the saute'ed vegetables, sauce, chicken, potatoes and peas in a casserole and stir well. Layer the phyllo dough on top to form a crust, spraying each sheet lightly with spray. Cut a steam vent in the center, and bake for 35 to 45 minutes in a preheated 375-degree oven, or until the top is brown and the filling is bubbly. Serve immediately.

Note: The pie can be prepared except for baking up to two days in advance and refrigerated. Allow it to reach room temperature before baking.

Per serving: 234 calories, 22 gm protein, 17 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 64 mg cholesterol, 466 mg sodium.

CHICKEN BREASTS STUFFED WITH CORN BREAD (6 servings)

FOR THE STUFFING:

6 4-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon oil

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1/2 cup finely chopped celery

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

1 tablespoon minced fresh sage

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups corn bread crumbs, toasted

1/2 cup chicken stock

TO ROAST:

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup sliced carrots

1/2 cup sliced onions

1/2 cup sliced celery

1 teaspoon minced garlic

FOR THE SAUCE:

1 cup chicken stock

1 teaspoon minced jalapeno pepper, seeds and ribs removed

1 sprig fresh thyme

1 tablespoon unsalted tomato paste

1 tablespoon flour

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

Cut a pocket in each chicken breast, and set aside. Heat the butter and oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, celery and garlic, and saute' for 5 minutes. Add the tomato, parsley, sage, pepper and salt and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the corn bread crumbs and enough stock to moisten the mixture.

Divide the stuffing among the chicken breasts, and close them with toothpicks. Brush them with butter, place the carrots, onions, celery and garlic in the pan, and bake them with the chicken in a 350-degree preheated oven for 25 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked and the stuffing is hot. Remove, and keep warm.

For the sauce, scrape the cooked vegetables into a saucepan, and deglaze the roasting pan with the stock. Add the jalapeno, thyme, tomato paste and flour to the vegetables in the pan. Cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Add the deglazing stock, pepper and salt, and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain.

To serve, cut the chicken breasts into slices on the diagonal, and arrange on top of a few tablespoons of the sauce.

Note: The stuffing can be made up to two days in advance and refrigerated, tightly covered. Do not stuff the breasts until just before cooking.

Per serving: 372 calories, 39 gm protein, 20 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 107 mg cholesterol, 601 mg sodium.

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