THE mercury has just dropped another 10 degrees. You pull on an old woolen cardigan and settle beside a crackling fire with Rover at your feet and a mug of hot soup in your hands. Winter is here. The season calls for food that warms you up and keeps you full: pasta with red sauce, beef stew, lentil soup, or oatmeal bread, perhaps. ``Comfort'' foods such as mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs, and cheese souffl'es also make for good winter fare, says Sarah Leah Chase, author of ``Cold-Weather Cooking'' (New York: Workman publishing, 1990, $13.95 paper).
``In winter, slaving over a hot stove is not a bad place to be,'' says Ms. Chase in an interview. Whether you live in Los Angeles or on Long Island, ``the perception of cold is relative to what you're accustomed to,'' she notes.
Many people see cooking in the winter as more hobby than chore, Chase says. ``In summer, things are off the vine. Winter is a creative challenge. It's fun to play in the kitchen.''
Lane Morgan, author of ``Winter Harvest Cookbook'' (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1990, $14.95 paper), says she tends to experiment in the kitchen more during the winter because she has more time indoors: ``You're not going to be out trimming your hedges or tending your garden.
``We eat more. We eat earlier,'' she says about her family in a phone interview. They live on a farm in northern Washington state, which recently got some 20-degree F. weather - the perfect time to cook a long-simmering soup or stew on the wood stove, says Ms. Morgan. She advocates using winter produce such as kale, leeks, endive, chard, and artichoke-like cardoons. She puts a pot on the range and lets it perk all day; ``being indoors more means there's more time to stir the pot.''
Soup seems to be the all-American winter food that wards off the chill - apr`es ski, apr`es school, apr`es sledding ... even apr`es outdoor swim. ``Soup happens to be a very good, nourishing food to warm you up,'' says Alex Mattola, president of the Polar Bear Club USA Inc. Mr. Mattola and other Polar Bear Club members enjoy swimming in the ocean year-round: ``Snow, rain, hail - makes no difference to us,'' he says.
Warm, hearty food is the ticket, but keep it interesting, say the experts.
``Sometimes, your palate tends to hibernate - you have to shock it out of hibernation,'' says Chase. Try sunny colors, unexpected flavors, new dishes, and treats, she suggests - homemade hot chocolate, for example. ``Most people don't think of making it. What a difference!'' says Chase, who likes to serve it in fine china cups.
``People want variety, and fresh taste, and some sort of culinary excitement in the winter,'' says Morgan. ``I found a lot of good recipes for things you get tired of in the winter - like carrots,'' she continues, mentioning carrot risotto and carrot curry with cashews. ``Kale and leeks are probably the two winter stalwarts I depend on because they are easy to grow, versatile, and delicious.'' One of the most popular recipes she has come across has been a pork chop and kale recipe (recipe at right). ``It's simple and foolproof and ridiculously good,'' she says.