If you follow trends like a hawk . . . roost easy. You're probably embracing the newly hatched cultural phenomenon known as "nesting."

Sociologists say that society is nervous about the future - uncertainty about the coming millennium is especially worrisome. So they turn their angst inward.

The result? People have begun to center their lives around family and home and the identities they grew up with. As this mass migration occurs, food has taken on heightened importance. Traditional "comfort foods" now seem like old friends.

Returning nesters are swallowing at home instead of in restaurants in, say, Capistrano. Restaurateurs are stressed out as they watch their profits dwindle.

It's because we're winging our way home to the roost - and the security of "feeding time."

Cooking Light magazine assesses culinary trends each year, and during a recent visit to our offices, Cynthia LaGrone, a food editor for the popular publication, talked about this year's findings.

Their determinations are based on interviews with consumers, chefs, nutritionists and even a scientist who researches taste and smell.

As for the nesting movement, the Cooking Light results show that food is reflecting those cultural conditions.

"Food brings families together," LaGrone noted. "It's a bonding agent.

As Americans celebrate their own cultures, they're learning to accept and incorporate differences from other cultures into their own kitchens.

Note the trend picks in January/February Cooking Light. Writer John Stark says, "If an overall picture emerges, it's that we're a contradictory lot when it comes to eating. We push the gastronomical envelope into more exotic areas, yet we crave familiarity."

Cooking Light's "Hot Plates" for 1998 include:

SUNDAY SUPPER

For many, Sunday is the only day of the week when everyone is available to share experiences, plans and the food that truly feels like home. It's a relaxed one- or two-pot kind of night. Even if all family members can't coordinate schedules to eat together every night of the week, one night usually can be set aside - Sunday.

STOVETOP GRILL

With one of these heavy "frypans with raised ridges," every day can feel like an outdoor barbecue. This pan (we use Le Crueset) is perfect for healthy, low-fat meals. Cooking at home has been revolutionized by this tool. Prices are going down, and sales are going up. The result is grilled meat or veggies any time.

AMERICAN REGIONAL FOOD

America is diverse in culture, climate and food. Perhaps as a reaction to generic fast-food eating, people are returning to their roots. They have found their local fare to contain edible delights and a new reason to celebrate regional ethnicity.

FOOD AS MEDICINE

New studies prove that Mom knew exactly what she was doing when she forced you to eat lima beans and Brussels sprouts. Doctors have found fruits and vegetables to be the best medicine, boosting our immune systems to prevent cancer and other deadly diseases. The next time the sniffles hit, perhaps you should turn to the pantry instead of the medicine cabinet.

NEW SPICE RACK

Salt and pepper for some, cumin and curry for others. This year, Americans will continue to move aside their catsup bottles in favor of more exotic flavorings. These spices, once a mystery to many Americans, are now in high demand as other nationalities finally reveal their culinary secrets.

COCINA LATINA

Bored by Chinese restaurants and pizza places? Allow your tastes to wander, and they might "salsa" southward to the countries of Latin America. Americans have sampled Latin cuisine in many restaurants that have opened around the nation. Cuban-descended chef Douglas Rodriguez practices his Latin brand of cooking at his highly successful New York eatery, Patria. He first blazed the trail of Latin cooking with a well-received book, "Nuevo Latina."

Families connecting. Old favorites simmering on the stove. . . .

Pleeeeese, Mom, dust off your favorite pan (a pressure cooker without the lid) and cook up a batch of your ethnically mysterious "Potato Hogabush." I'm coming home to bond.

*****

Recipes

GRILLED PEPPER STEAK WITH BELL PEPPER SALSA

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons molasses

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

4 4-ounce beef tenderloin steaks (about 1-inch thick)

3 large shallots, peeled and halved lengthwise

1 large red bell pepper, seeded and quartered (about 8 ounces)

Cooking spray

4 teaspoons coarsely ground pepper

Thyme sprigs (optional)

Combine vinegar, molasses, dried thyme, vegetable oil, salt, black pepper, steaks, shallots, and bell pepper in a large zip-lock plastic bag. Seal and marinate in refrigerator 30 minutes. Remove steaks and vegetables from bag, reserving marinade. Place reserved marinade in a small saucepan; bring to a boil. Cook until reduced to 3 tablespoons (about 2 minutes). Place the grill pan coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat until hot. Add shallots and bell peppers; cook 3 minutes on each side or until crisp-tender. Chop shallots and bell peppers; place in a small bowl. Stir in reduced marinade; set aside. Press 1 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper onto 1 side of each steak. Wipe pan clean with paper towels; recoat with cooking spray. Place pan over medium-high heat until hot. Add steaks, peppered side down; cook 3 minutes on each side or until desired degree of doneness. Add bell pepper salsa; cook until thoroughly heated. Garnish with thyme sprigs, if desired. Yield: 4 servings.

- Each serving contains 245 calories, 10g fat, 15g carb, 209mg sodium, 71mg cholesterol.

- From Cooking Light

SMOTHERED CHICKEN AND BARLEY

1 teaspoon ground cumin

3/4 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon dried mint flakes

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper

6 4-ounce chicken thighs, skinned

1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil

Cooking spray

1 1/2 cups chopped onion

1 cup chopped red bell pepper

1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce

3 1/2 cups low-salt chicken broth

1 1/4 cups uncooked pearl barley

1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained

6 tablespoons chopped green onions

Combine cumin, chili powder, salt, cinnamon, mint flakes, garlic powder and ground red pepper in a small bowl. Rub chicken with half of the spice mixture. Heat vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat. Add chicken; cook 1 minute on each side or until chicken is browned. Remove the chicken from the skillet. Recoat skillet with cooking spray; add chopped onion, bell pepper and soy sauce. Cook over medium-high heat 3 minutes or until vegetables are lightly browned. Add broth, barley, tomatoes and remaining spice mixture, and stir well. Add chicken to skillet, nestling into vegetable mixture. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 55 minutes or until chicken is done. Let stand 15 minutes. Sprinkle with green onions. Yields 6 servings.

- Each serving contains 302 calories, 5g fat, 43g carb, 491mg sodium, 65mg cholesterol.

- From Cooking Light

SOPA DE CARNE GUARANI

(White Rice and Ground Beef Soup)

1/2 cup long-grain white rice

1/2 cup hot water

1 pound ground beef

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons olive oil

2 ears sweet yellow corn kernels (cut off cobs)

6 green onions, white and green parts

1 white onion, diced

1 tablespoon pulverized garlic (with mortar and pestle)

6 plum tomatoes

3 quarts strong beef stock

1 tablespoon dried oregano

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves

Unseasoned croutons

Soak the rice in the hot water for 10 minutes. Drain the rice and transfer to a blender. Puree until almost liquified, about 1 minute. Using your hands, combine the meat and pureed rice. Add the salt and pepper and mix until evenly incorporated. Place 3 tablespoons of the oil, the corn, green onions, white onion, garlic and tomatoes in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely pureed. Heat the 1/2 cup of oil in a large stockpot over high heat. Add the pureed vegetable mixture and cook about 10 minutes, stirring often. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Add the oregano and season to taste with salt and pepper. Decrease the heat to low and simmer for 1 hour. Stir in the parsley. Ladle the soup into bowls, float some of the croutons on top and serve. Serves 4.

- Each serving contains 897 calories, 57g fat, 58g carb, 1226mg sodium, 112mg cholesterol.

- From "Latin Ladles" by Douglas Rodriguez

HERB-CRUSTED ROAST BEEF

1 5-pound bottom round roast

3 large cloves garlic, peeled

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon black pep-per-corns

1 teaspoon dried rosemary

1 teaspoon dried marjoram

For gravy (optional)

2 cups beef stock

1/4 cup water

Place the meat in a roasting pan and pat it dry with paper towels. In a mortar, blender, or mini food processor, crush the garlic with the salt, peppercorns, rosemary, and marjoram into a paste. Rub this mixture into the meat on all sides. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight to let the flavors penetrate the meat. Several hours before serving, remove the meat from the refrigerator, unwrap it, and let it come to room temperature for 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Roast the meat for 30 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. Roast the meat until the internal temperature reads 120 degrees F. When you insert an instant meat thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, about 1 hour longer. If you prefer the meat to be less rare, cook it to 130 degrees F. Remove the roast to a carving board and let it rest for 15 minutes. Slice the meat thinly across the grain and place the slices on a serving platter. Degrease the pan juices and drizzle over the meat. Or if you prefer to make gravy, stir the beef stock into the degreased pan juices, scrape up all the browned bits from the pan, and pour into a small saucepan. Stir the flour into the water until smooth. Bring the gravy to a boil and whisk in the flour mixture. Cook over low heat for 5 minutes and season to taste. Serves 10.

- Each serving contains 657 calories, 18g fat, 5g carb, 758mg sodium, 218mg cholesterol.

- From "Country Suppers" by Ruth Cousineau