As the weather turns wintery, many cooks turn to beans. After all, home-cooked beans - whether white, red, black or garbanzo (chickpeas) - have better flavor and texture than those that come in cans. Besides, on a cold day it's so pleasant and "homey" to have a pot simmering on the stove. Cooks around the Mediterranean find that the flavor and richness of meat are fine complements to beans, and often combine beans with braised or stewed beef to make hearty, warming entrees. Doing this is frugal too, as the satisfying, inexpensive beans makes it possible to cook a smaller amount of meat for the same number of servings. This is a healthy habit, as beans are a source of fiber and fat-free protein. Mediterranean beef and bean stews have ingredients in common with our Shabbat stew, cholent or hamin, but the cooking techniques and the resulting taste and texture are very different. Obviously, cholent has a much longer cooking time than most other stews, even old-fashioned ones. Instead of combining all the elements in a single pan from the beginning as we do for cholent, French chefs often cook the beans and stew the beef in separate pans until they are barely done, then simmer the beef and beans together briefly so they exchange flavors. This not only helps to cut the entree's cooking time; it ensures that the beans cook evenly but keep their distinct texture. Each element keeps more of a separate identity instead of melding together as the ingredients do in cholent. Chopped tomatoes are a popular component in the sauces of Mediterranean meat and bean stews - which might also include carrots, peppers, mushrooms or zucchini - whereas classic cholent doesn't contain vegetables besides potatoes and onions. The carrots and other vegetables become mushy when subjected to the all-night "cholent treatment." Some cooks add vegetables to their stews partway through the cooking time, but this is not the custom in cholent making because of the religious prohibition of cooking on Shabbat. Although typical Mediterranean beef and bean stews are satisfying, most don't have the stick-to-the-ribs quality associated with cholent. The reason: outside of the beans, these stews rarely contain other carbs like potatoes, barley or wheat foods that frequently enter the cholent pot. In the following two recipes for Mediterranean beef and bean stews, the sauces are flavored with onions, garlic and tomatoes. The first is a slightly spicy dish, seasoned with hot peppers, fresh dill and a liberal amount of garlic in the Israeli/Turkish/Middle Eastern style. The second recipe, flavored with oregano and a bit of carrot, is more in the style of southern France and Italy and is savory but more gently seasoned. Tips and techniques: _ Browning the beef: As the first step in making a beef stew, chefs often saute the meat cubes to give them a deeper color and impart a rich, slightly caramelized taste to the sauce. To save time, home cooks often skip this step. _ Soaking the beans: Old-fashioned recipes call for soaking dried beans overnight so they will cook more evenly. In Paris, the chefs at our cooking school taught us that this is not necessary if your beans are not old. If you buy beans at a market that has a good turnover, they are likely to be reasonably fresh. Actually, I've found that even old beans have cooked fine without being soaked. MIDDLE EASTERN BEEF CASSOULET A touch of hot paprika or semi-hot ground red pepper imparts a slight pungency to this stew; add the optional dried hot peppers if you like a little extra heat. Instead of using white beans or chickpeas, you can use pink beans or mixed beans (cholent beans) if you like. This entree somewhat recalls French cassoulet but is much simpler. Some finish it in the oven, as the people in southwest France often do with their famous specialty. If you'd like to bake the stew so the beans get a little crusty, see the note at the end of the recipe. Makes 4 to 6 servings 4 450 gr. dried white beans, chickpeas or a mixture of both 4 1 bay leaf 4 Salt and freshly ground pepper 4 1 to 2 Tbsp. olive oil 4 900 gr. beef shoulder, excess fat trimmed, cut in 2.5-cm cubes 4 1 large onion, chopped 4 6 large garlic cloves, chopped 4 900 gr. ripe tomatoes, diced, or an 800-gr. can tomatoes, drained and diced 4 4 tiny dried hot peppers (optional) 4 1 or 2 sweet green or yellow peppers (optional) 4 1 tsp. semi-hot ground red pepper or hot paprika; or 3â„4 tsp. sweet paprika and 1â„4 tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste 4 1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill Sort beans, discarding any broken ones and any stones. Put them in a saucepan with 4 cups water and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 1 hour. Add a pinch of salt and cook about 1â„2 hour longer or until just tender. Discard bay leaf. Heat oil in heavy wide casserole. Add beef cubes to pan in batches and brown them on all sides over medium-high heat. Remove beef. Add onion and cook over medium-low heat for 5 minutes or until lightly browned. Add garlic and cook 1â„2 minute. Stir in tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes. Return meat to pan. Add 11â„2 cups water, dried hot pepper, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 2 hours, adding a few tablespoons of hot water occasionally if sauce looks dry. Add green peppers and simmer for 30 more minutes or until beef is very tender. Skim off excess fat. Discard dried peppers. Drain beans, reserving their cooking liquid, and add them to stew. Add ground red pepper and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes to blend flavors. If stew is too soupy, cook uncovered for 5 minutes more. If stew is too thick, add a few tablespoons bean cooking liquid and simmer over low heat for 2 minutes. Add dill. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot. Note: To bake the stew, moisten it with 1â„2 cup extra bean liquid. After adding the beans, add the dill and spoon the finished stew into a large gratin dish or other baking dish. Bake it uncovered at 200ÂºC for 20 to 30 minutes. MEDITERRANEAN BEEF STEW WITH WHITE BEANS AND HERBS Cooking dried beans with bay leaves and thyme sprigs is a French custom. Tomatoes, garlic and herbs - thyme, oregano and parsley - give this stew a fresh and zesty flavor. Serve it with rice or simply with country bread. Makes 4 to 6 servings 4 1 cup dried white beans 4 2 bay leaves 4 1 sprig fresh thyme or 1â„2 tsp. dried 4 1 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil 4 900 gr. boneless beef shoulder, excess fat trimmed, cut in 2.5-cm cubes 4 1 large onion, chopped 4 3 large garlic cloves, chopped 4 800-gr. can tomatoes, drained and chopped 4 1 small carrot, diced 4 Salt and freshly ground pepper 4 11â„2 tsp. chopped fresh oregano or 1â„2 tsp. dried 4 Hot paprika or cayenne pepper to tast (optional) 4 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley Sort beans, discarding any broken ones and any stones. Put them in a saucepan with 4 cups water, 1 bay leaf and thyme sprig (but not dried thyme) and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 1 hour. Add a pinch of salt and cook about 1â„2 hour longer or until just tender. Discard bay leaf and thyme sprig. Heat oil in heavy wide casserole. Add beef cubes to pan in batches and brown them on all sides over medium-high heat. Remove them, add onion and cook over low heat 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1â„2 minute. Stir in tomatoes and cook 2 minutes. Return meat to pan. Add 1 cup water, remaining bay leaf, thyme, and a little pepper. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 11â„2 hours, stirring occasionally. Add carrot and simmer for 30 minutes or until meat is tender, adding hot water if pan begins to look dry. Discard bay leaf. Skim off excess fat from stew. Drain beans, reserving their cooking liquid, and add beans to meat stew. If stew is too soupy, cook uncovered 5 minutes more. If stew is too thick, add a few tablespoons bean cooking liquid and simmer over low heat 2 minutes. Add oregano and hot paprika; taste and adjust seasoning. Serve sprinkled with parsley. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast and of the Fresh from France cookbook series.