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Summer Specialties : A Sumptuous Buffet for 16 Is Built on Versatile Treatments of Easy Dishes

May 21, 1987|ANNE WILLAN | Willan, a cooking teacher and author, is founder and president of La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris. She lives in Washington. and

Do other families spend summer as we do, in an ever-changing group of parents, children, friends, friends' dogs and casual droppers-in? With Memorial Day almost here, I've been reviewing my repertoire of summer specialties--recipes that are quick to make for a few or many. They have to mix well with other dishes and last for a day or two without harm.

Together, the following ideas add up to a sumptuous summer buffet for 16, or you could excerpt just a few recipes for smaller groups of people. The spread is centered on a big fresh fish, baked whole with lemon, herbs and plenty of olive oil. The fish itself, the sides slashed and spiked with herbs and a lemon in the mouth, is its own ornament, needing no garnish but a bed of lettuce and a bowl of mayonnaise--lightened, if desired, with yogurt and lemon.

First Consideration: Freshness

Red snapper with its pink skin and salmon with its pink flesh are natural kings of a buffet table, but almost any large fish can be cooked this way--freshness and price are much more important than type. When we had a beach house on the Delaware coast, sea bass and bluefish were our favorites; when we moved to Normandy we switched to cod, hake and the occasional pollack.

The salads I suggest to accompany the fish are standbys I've encountered throughout the years. All of them are made with vegetables rather than fragile greens, and they keep--indeed, they improve on standing. Mushrooms a la Grecque, for instance, is a French version of marinated mushrooms liberally spiced with coriander and pepper. Cauliflower, zucchini, cucumbers, even green beans, can be cooked the same way and, in combination or on their own, make an excellent appetizer.

Sweet red peppers, broiled so they acquire a touch of char, are asking to be dressed in Italian style with olive oil, vinegar and oregano. Equally Mediterranean is the idea of baking vegetables in oil--tomatoes and eggplant in this case--then sharpening their flavor with vinegar or lemon to serve at room temperature. Indeed, cold can be the enemy of taste and all these salads are best enjoyed at the temperature of a shady table outdoors.

A Salad With a Difference

Root Celery Remoulade, that French standby which is so neglected elsewhere, breaks the monotony of oil and vinegar dressing. Root celery is slowly gaining ground in markets here, and when cut julienne, blanched to remain crunchy, and dressed with spicy mustard mayonnaise, it is hard to beat. It, too, is an easy first course to serve with salami and olives.

My last two salad suggestions are from that master of culinary invention, Auguste Escoffier. Escoffier was a native of Nice and, with the Italian border only 20 miles away, his pretty rice salad mixed with green peas and carrot echoes the colors of the Italian flag. As for his salad Nicoise, it must be authentic, although I've never seen its like elsewhere. His combination of tuna, anchovy, herbs and ripe tomatoes is exactly right.

After such a virtuoso display of salads, dessert could be strawberries and cream. This recipe is little more, for the berries are simply macerated in orange juice and Grand Marnier, then topped with whipped cream and toasted almonds. What a way to start out summer.

MEMORIAL DAY BUFFET FOR 16

Baked Fish With Herbs

Light Tomato Mayonnaise

Mushrooms a la Grecque

Roast Sweet Pepper Salad

Baked Eggplant - Tomato Salad

Root Celery Remoulade

Italian Rice Salad

Escoffier's Salade Nicoise

Strawberries With Almond Cream

Suggested wine: A Provencal or domestic rose wine, or an Italian-style white wine such as Soave

All the cooking can be done a day ahead for this spread, but be sure to allow plenty of refrigerator space.

BAKED FISH WITH HERBS

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 (6- to 7-pound) fish or 4 (3- to 4-pound) fish, scaled and cleaned, with heads on

2 bunches fresh thyme

Juice of 2 lemons

Salt, pepper

9 lemons

1 large head lettuce

Grease grill pan with some of olive oil. Wash fish, trimming tail and fins, but leaving head. Pat dry with paper towels. Score flesh deeply with 3 to 4 slashes on each side of fish to cook evenly. Set fish in pan. Tuck 1 sprig thyme in each slash. Stuff remaining thyme in cavity. Spoon remaining oil over fish, sprinkle generously with lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bake fish at 375 degrees, basting often and adding more oil if necessary, until fish just flakes easily when tested at thickest part. Allow 35 to 45 minutes for large fish and 20 to 25 minutes for smaller ones. Leave fish to cool. They can be stored up to 24 hours in refrigerator.

To finish, not more than 2 hours before serving, halve 8 lemons. Cut remaining lemon in wedges. Arrange bed of lettuce on 2 platters. Place fish on top. Set lemon wedges in fish mouth. Set halves around edge of platter. Serve fish at room temperature. Makes 16 servings.

Note: If fish are very large, you may need to cook one at a time. To fit big fish in pan, curve in semicircle rather than laying flat.

LIGHT TOMATO MAYONNAISE

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