This past New Year’s Day, a few hours after returning from a three-day trip to San Diego, we gave a big open house. My friend Elizabeth said, “Well, you can do that, because you’re a cook.” But the real reason I could pull it off was the menu--a copious cheese board, endless loaves of bread, earthenware bowls piled high with tangerines and several beautiful, generous buffet salads, the most important one being black-eyed peas with a cumin-scented vinaigrette.
Rather than deteriorate over time, the best buffet salads get better. Instead of wilting, the ingredients marinate in the dressing, and the flavors and textures evolve and deepen.
Before I left for my long weekend on Friday, I had cooked the black-eyed peas and made the vinaigrette, a combination of vinegar, olive oil, cooking liquid from the beans, mustard, cumin, salt and garlic. I knew that the beans would keep for three days if they were refrigerated in the dressing (in fact, they kept for more than a week, until we finally polished off the leftovers). When I got home from San Diego, I chopped peppers and cilantro and added them to the beans before setting the salad out in big bowls.
The beans now taken care of, I cleaned, cored and sliced several bulbs of fennel, more red peppers, and mushrooms for a fabulous salad that I had perfected a couple of months before, when I made it at an event for 250 people. Making it for 40 took a lot less time (OK, I confess: I asked my friend Cliff to buy, wash and chop the herbs for both salads, knowing I would be away and miss the farmers market, and would be pressed for time when I got back). This salad has a lemony vinaigrette. As it sits, the mushrooms soak up the marinade while the other vegetables remain crisp. It’s light and heavenly, and pretty as well.
Salads that hold are often at the center of my buffets when I’m entertaining, especially for a crowd. When I lived in Paris, I gave a New Year’s Eve party every year that began at around 10 p.m. and often ended the next morning when the Metro began running again (they stop around 1 a.m.) Black-eyed peas vinaigrette was de rigueur , but I also set out other salads made with ingredients such as fennel and red peppers, endive and apples, and cucumbers--foods that don’t wilt.
My standard summer salad is a Greek salad made with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onion, feta and olives, seasoned with oregano and/or mint and a simple oil and vinegar dressing. Although the vegetables tend to sweat as the salad sits, they retain their crunch, and the liquid they release serves as a delicious feta-and herb-scented brine that is perfect for sopping up with crusty country bread.
It’s good to include a combination of foods that can absorb liquid without losing their integrity, such as beans and mushrooms, tomatoes and cucumbers, and foods that tend to retain their crunch and play off the dressing, such as peppers, fennel, celery and onion.
These salads have another great attribute: Not only do they last for a long time once you dress them and set them out, but they can also be made ahead. Some are best left undressed until you’re ready to put them on the buffet, but the beans will be fine sitting in their vinaigrette in the refrigerator while you run off for a three-day holiday.
If you’re grilling your main dish, with one or two of these salads on the menu you can get all of the accompanying dishes well out of the way beforehand. Leftovers are good too; you won’t throw these out, you’ll just keep eating them until they’re gone.
There’s one other fabulous thing about salads that hold: You don’t have to wash any lettuce!
Shulman is author of “Mediterranean Light” and “Provencal Light” (both published by William Morrow).