Backyard Buffet

Tips for making that outdoor party a cool affair

August 04, 1999|By Tina Danze | Tina Danze,Universal Press Syndicate

Planning a backyard party in the warm days ahead? Take your cues from cultures that have summer entertaining down cold. From the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia, room-temperature buffets are mainstays for celebrations on the terrace, the beach, the patio or the town square. Putting a few cold dishes on the menu works, too, if you know some simple tricks for keeping them chilled.

The beauty of such an outdoor buffet is that most of the work can be done in advance; the only last-minute task is arranging an attractive spread of food. Read on for tips that can make your summer party the coolest of the year. Don't be limited; let these ideas spark your imagination.

Potato salad redux: Even in the heat, a Mediterranean-style potato salad won't raise fears of mayonnaise-gone-bad. Toss red-skin potato chunks with red onion slices, Greek olives and a simple dressing of lemon juice, olive oil and garlic. Omit the olives and add fresh cilantro, and substitute lime juice for the lemon for a Southwestern slant.

Salsas: For a Southwest or tropical theme, consider fresh salsas with skewers of cold grilled chicken or pork on ice. Tomato or tomatillo salsas say Southwest; fruit salsas, such as mango or peach, tropical.

Make a quick fruit salsa with 2 cups of diced mango, apricot or peach; 1 diced medium purple onion; 1 diced red bell pepper; 1 finely minced serrano chili; 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro leaves; and 2 to 3 tablespoons lime juice.

The not-pasta salad: Tired of pasta salad? Start with rice instead. The different shape and texture offer a refreshing change of pace.

Cook the rice the same way you would pasta; boil it in abundant salted boiling water until tender, yet still firm to the bite. Drain the rice in a colander and run cold water over it until cooled.

For a Mediterranean menu, dress it with lemon juice and a fruity olive oil, a bottled lemon-garlic dressing or other vinaigrette. Toss with sliced red, green and yellow bell peppers; chopped fresh herbs; capers; tomatoes (fresh cherry or bottled sun-dried); or other fresh, seasonal vegetables.

For an Asian-inspired salad, use a bottled lemon-grass vinaigrette or a cilantro-lime dressing. Mix rice with sliced scallions, shredded carrots, fresh bean sprouts, sliced water chestnuts or julienne jicama, chopped celery and chopped cilantro, if desired.

For a heartier salad, add bits of poached chicken or tiny cooked shrimp, and put the whole thing on ice.

Nature's bowls: For an easy-to-make and festive serving bowl for ice and salads, use a large, hollowed-out watermelon. Fill with ice. Then nest several small bowls (or one large oval bowl) in the ice to keep the food cool. Or, prepare a small watermelon shell the same way and nest with a single bowl. You can even skip the bowl, fill the watermelon with a salad and set it in a big, galvanized bucket or other container of crushed ice.

For a tropical chicken salad, add a few papaya chunks and cashews to your favorite chicken salad, and serve in the center of a large papaya half.

Asian noodle salad: Toss spaghetti noodles, egg noodles or Japanese soba (buckwheat) noodles with bottled or homemade peanut sauce; cooked, sliced shiitake mushrooms; and half-moon- shaped cucumber slices. Garnish with sliced scallions and chopped peanuts. For a spicier salad, add a few dashes of hot chili oil or a few pinches of red chili flakes. Serve with cold barbecued chicken wings or skewered grilled meats that you prepare a day ahead of time and refrigerate. Serve at room temperature, but keep the meat on ice.

Cool cucumbers: Make a Greek-style salad of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, Greek olives and feta cheese, with a sprinkling of chopped oregano (for a variation, use basil or dill). It stands up to the heat for a long time.

For a southeast Asian-style salad, start with this sweet-sour and spicy Thai dressing: Heat 1/2 cup rice vinegar with 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon salt in a saucepan. When sugar dissolves, add 1 or 2 tablespoons minced red chili and let cool. Pour dressing over 1 cup thinly sliced cucumber and 1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots; toss to combine. Garnish with chopped cilantro. (From Sheila Lukins' "All Around the World Cookbook," Random House, 1995)

Shrimp on ice: Buy precooked frozen, tail-on shrimp and defrost it. You won't worry about spoilage when you serve it atop crushed ice in a small galvanized metal bucket or bowl (available at hardware and housewares stores), a cement planter or a large ceramic crock. Be creative; you may even find a deep, pretty plastic tray that does the trick.

Serve the shrimp with a basil-pesto dipping sauce for a Mediterranean menu, remoulade or red sauce for Cajun, or this Indonesian dipping sauce for an Asian menu:

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