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Simply Entertaining: Serving ease key to buffet success

Thursday, February 14, 2002

By Mary Miller

Bifocals, the lightning rod, the odometer, the harmonica, the dinner buffet. Dinner buffet? Yes, Pennsylvania's own Benjamin Franklin is credited with introducing all these things, including the buffet. The French word buffet, meaning sideboard, already existed, but it took on new meaning when Franklin entertained French dignitaries by allowing them to serve themselves from a board placed on a trestle.

Even in an elegant setting, buffet dining is still informal. The most casual buffets are completely self-serve. A semi-formal buffet involves a server assisting with the main dish.

Since buffet foods are best prepared ahead of time, sliced ham, turkey and roast beef are good choices. So are presliced dishes, such as lasagna or quiche. Whatever you choose, the food shouldn't lose its appeal as it sits. Some dishes congeal, shrink or change color during the course of a buffet meal.

As a guideline, Lora Brody, author of "The Entertaining Survival Guide," suggests: "Offer one (non-threatening) entree such as chicken, one large vegetable dish with no meat in it, one grain or potato dish, and some buttered bread." Nothing too saucy, juicy or runny. Avoid slippery salads and long-stranded pasta dishes. They're difficult to scoop onto your plate.

Remember to pile serving bowls high. Be generous when estimating quantities. Vary shapes and heights of serving pieces. Pretty trays, unique baskets, and even clean produce or cheese shipping boxes will add interest to your table.

Dig out your chafing dishes, heat-retaining casseroles or hot plates to keep foods warm. Place serving utensils next to each dish, making sure they're large enough not to sink in and become lost in your casserole. I once found a teaspoon in the bottom of a bowl of baked beans ... my own teaspoon, of course.

Place foods on the table in a logical progression from left to right with dessert either at the end of the line or at another table. Plates should be first, then entrees, then side dishes. Sauces, gravies and condiments should be next to what they go with. How will guests know that the white creamy stuff is horseradish sauce if it is near the chocolate cake?

Position silverware and napkins at the end of the buffet line, either set flat on the table or wrapped with the napkin. Unless your guests will be eating at small tables, all buffet foods should be eaten with a fork. It's too hard to balance more than one piece of cutlery on your lap. Place salt and pepper near eating spaces rather than at the buffet table.

Any flat surface can be used as a serving area. It can be covered with a cloth, place mats, fabric, a quilt; even squares of wheat grass or sod to make a waist-level picnic or Easter egg hunt in your home. (It looks great - just a little messy to clean up.) Either one large table or groupings of smaller tables will do. If using your dining room table for your buffet, move the chairs to the perimeter of the room for easy access to the food.

Sesame Green Beans

This recipe can be doubled or even tripled and can be made ahead of time.

1 1/2 pounds green beans, washed and ends trimmed
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon mild sesame oil
2 teaspoons oyster sauce
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup sesame seeds, toasted

Fill a saucepan with 1 inch of water and add the green beans. Cover and bring to a boil. Cook for 3 minutes, or until the beans are crisp-tender. Drain them into a strainer and rinse with cold water, draining well.

In a saucepan, combine the garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, oyster sauce, lemon juice, sugar and pepper. Heat over medium-high heat until bubbles appear at the edge of the pan. Watch carefully; when the bubbles extend to the middle of the pan, remove from the heat immediately. Pour the sauce over the beans and toss to mix. Add the sesame seeds and toss again. Serve warm or cold. Serves 6 to 8.

"The Entertaining Survival Guide"

Mary Miller is a Fox Chapel-based registered dietitian and food writer. Her column appears twice monthly..

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