For years we've wanted to create a perfect buffet dish that could be made so far in advance, for any size group, would be easy to eat and appeal to the broadcast range of tastes. We think we've found it. CRAB, CHICKEN OR TURKEY CURRY RICE CHUTNEY: Fresh mint chutney Taj Mahal; cranberry chutney CONDIMENTS: Fresh pineapple; watermelon rind pickles; sliced cucumbers; scallions; toasted coconut; dried currants; unsalted peanuts

If this is a large party and you have arranged to serve champagne, it may be served throughout the meal. Ideally, this curry should be served with a full-bodied white wine, such as a chilled Pouilly-Fume. tTHE TABLE SETTINGS -- This is an any-occasion or time-of-day, single-line buffet that requires fork only. The centerpiece, an apple tree: For each centerpiece, besides the fruit, you will need three plates (dinner, salad and saucer size) doilies to fit the plates and two champagne glasses. Arrange the centerpiece on a footed cake stand for the buffet table. Cut a thin slice from the end of each fruit so that it will stand without rolling. Cover each dish with a matching doily. Tier the plates, using the champagne glasses. Place a close ring of fruit around the rims of the two bottom plates. In the saucer, place three pieces of fruit, top with a single fruit. Spray with non-stick cooking spray to give the fruit a sheen. Insert clusters of parsley set in water tubes in the spaces between the fruits. Stud the parsley with walnuts and cinnamon sticks. These last should be added an hour before guests arrive; the tree can be done the day before. tTIMETABLE -- Very few items in this menu need last-minute preparation. The basic curry sauce freezes well, as do all the chutneys, which can be made up to a week in advance. The day before the party, cook the rice and refrigerate. Prepare the pineapple and scallion condiments. The day of the party, prepare the rest of the condiments. COUNTDOWN -- One hour before guests arrive: Set out all the chutneys and condiments on the table.

30 minutes before serving: Heat rice in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. When rice is hot, transfer it to warmed serving dish.

5 minutes before serving: Heat the curry sauce and add cooked crab to one portion, cooked chicken or turkey to the other. Ladle hot curries into chafing dishes. CRAB, CHICKEN OR TURKEY CURRY For 24 servings 3/4 pound (3 sticks) butter or margine 4 cups finely diced onions 4 cups finely diced, peeled tart green apples 5 cloves garlic, pressed 1/2 to 3/4 cup imported Madras curry powder, the amount depending on how hot you like curry 4 teaspoons celery salt 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves, crumbled 2 cups rich chicken broth (undiluted, if canned) 1 cup dry French vermouth, or 1 1/4 cups of white wine 1/2 cup pale dry sherry 3 cups heave cream (whipping cream) 2 cups light cream (half-and-half) 1/2 cup pureed mango chutney (optional) 2 tablespoons cornstarch, dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water 1 pound crab meat, shredded and picked over 1 pound cooked chicken or turkey, shredded (Noted: If serving only one curry, use two pounds of crab meat or two pounds of chicken or turkey.)

Melt the butter in a heavy pot of at least six-quart capacity. Saute the onions, apples and garlic for 5 minutes or until the onion is transparent. Stir in the curry powder, celery salt and thyme, and cook 5 minutes over medium-low heat to eliminate the raw taste of the curry powder.

Add the broth, vermouth or wine and sherry. Bring the mixture to a boil, lower heat and simmer slowly for 15 minutes. Stir in the cream, half-and-half and chutney and bring to a simmer. Taste and add salt if needed. To thicken the sauce, slowly pour in the cornstarch and water mixture and stir until thickened, 1 to 2 minutes.

Just before serving, divide the sauce in two parts. Add the crab meat to one and the chicken or turkey to the other and simmer long enough to heat through. Transfer to large chafing dishes. Serve hot with rice, chutneys and condiments.

To Prepare in Advance: The basic curry sauce can be refrigerated up to four days. Do not add the meat until you heat the sauce. If the sauce is frozen, it will need to be rethickened with cornstarch. If making this sauce specifically for freezer storage, omit the thickening step unti after you thaw it. RICE For 24 servings 6 cups long-grain rice 2 tablespoons salt Bring 6 quarts of water to a rapid boil in a 10-to-12-quart pot. Gradually sprinkle in the rice. Simmer uncovered, without stirring, for 12 to 18 minutes. Test for doneness after 12 minutes. When the rice is tender, transfer to colander and rinse with cold water.

With the end of a wooden spoon, poke a few holes in the rice to help the rice cool. Let it drain thoroughly up to 30 minutes. Transfer the cooked rice to a buttered baking dish, layering it no deeper than 2 inches. Cover loosely with foil and refrigerate.

Before serving, reheat the rice, still covered with foil, in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes until very hot. Fluff with a fork and place in a heated serving dish. FRESH MINT CHUTNEY TAJ MAHAL For 2 cups 20 large sprigs of fresh mint (about 100 leaves) 2 medium onions, coarsely chopped 8 hot green chile pepers (see note) 1/4 cup freshly squeezed, strained lemon juice 1/4 cup cold water 4 teaspoons coriander seeds 2 teaspoons salt (Note: We use jalapenos, rinsed and seeded, though fresh can be used. This chutney is decidely "hot.")

Wash and dry the mint well. Pick off the leaves and discard the stalks. Place the leaves in an electric blender with all the remaining ingredients. Blend at low speed until the mixture is running smoothly through the blades. Stop the blender to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula. Blend at high speed for 3 to 4 minutes or until the chutney is smooth. Cool. Transfer to plastic or glass containers and refrigerate for 24 hours to allow flavors to ripen. CRANBERRY CHUTNEY For 4 cups, or up to 32 servings 4 cups (about 1 pound) fresh cranberries 2 cups water 1/2 cup cider vinegar 1 medium onion, finely chopped 1 large clove garlic, minced 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice 1 teaspoon salt 1/8 teaspoon cayenne 1 cup seedless raising or chopped pitted dates 1 cup dried currants 2/3 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar 1/2 cup finely diced crystallized ginger 1 cup slivered blanched almonds or other nuts

Rinse the cranberries and pick them over, discarding the soft ones. Set aside.

Combine the water, sugar, vinegar, onion, garlic, cinnamon, allspice, salt and cayenne in a 4-quart enamel or stainless-steel saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Stir in the cranberries and the remaining ingredients, except the nuts; simmer 10 minutes longer. Stir in the nuts, cool and refrigerate. Serve at room temperature. To prepare in Advance. The flavor is enhanced if the chutney is made at least 24 hours before serving. It will keep a year or more refrigerated or frozen. SEVEN CONDIMENTS FRESH PINEAPPLE -- Remove the rind from a large fresh pineapple lengthwise into eighths, remove core, then cut crosswise into thin wedge-shaped slivers. Refrigerate, covered, up to 24 hours. WATERMELON RIND PICKLES -- Drain two 19-ounce jars of commercial watermelon rind pickles.

SLICED CUCUMBERS -- Peel 2 medium cucumbers and slice them in half lengthwise. Scoop out and discard the seeds with the tip of a spoon. Cut the halves into thin slices. SCALLIONS -- Cut two bunches of scallions (about 12) into thin slices, including some of the green tops. Cover with a damp paper towel and refrigerate up to 24 hours. TOASTED COCONUT -- Spread about 1 pound unsweetened flaked coconut on a large baking sheet. Bake in the center of a 350-degree oven about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned. Cool, then store in a sealed plastic bag in the freezer. DRIED CURRANTS -- A 3/4-pound box will yield about 2 cups currants (or use raisins). UNSALTED PEANUTS -- An 8-ounce jar. CAPTION:

Illustration, Serving curry buffet-style is much simpler than a sit-down dinner where guests have to pass each other all those condiments.