Christmas in the Caribbean. Watching my free-wheeling friends take off for sun and surf, I decided to go one better and bring the warmth and color of Caribbean cuisine to our own fireside.

A handwoven tablecloth, a pottery dish painted with characteristic Haitian panache, a background of reggae supplied by my teen-age son, all helped to set the tropical scene. Within a couple of hours we covered several thousand miles and a handful of different cuisines.

Our tour began in the Dominican Republic with a crisp little shrimp fritter, flavored in typical Spanish style with garlic and onion. I suggest serving it with cocktails as a leisurely opening to this menu, but the fritters would also make an excellent first course, served with a coulis of fresh tomato and green peppers to echo the local sofrito sauce.

From there it is a 500-mile leap to Barbados, often compared to the rural English county of Surrey with its gentle hills, golf courses and country clubs. British cooking at its best is exemplified by creamy soup where crab is left to stand on its own against a brisk background of sherry wine.

On to booming Puerto Rico for the main course, a plump chicken stuffed with raisins and coconut and served with the pan juices as gravy. You might like to try the same stuffing in the Christmas turkey, for it blends well with traditional accompaniments like sweet potato, squash and cranberry sauce.

The chicken platter is adorned with a garland of fresh tropical fruits. Though intended purely as decoration, they must tempt the frailest appetite. Equally refreshing are cucumbers baked with orange -- a combination that surprisingly resembles the taste of melon.

Last stop for dessert is Martinique, famous for the potency of its rum and the finesse of its cuisine. The two combine in an unusual version of that old favorite, baked bananas. Here the bananas become plantains which are layered with fresh pineapple, sprinkled with brown sugar, and baked until caramelized. Topped with hot rum, the dish flambe's with a gusto that truly celebrates the season.

Timetable Up to one day ahead: Make and bread fritters and keep in refrigerator. Make soup but do not add crab meat; keep in refrigerator. Make stuffing for chicken and refrigerate.

Up to three hours before serving: Prepare cucumbers and keep at room temperature. Prepare fruit for flambe'.

Two hours before serving: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Stuff chicken, truss and roast it. Prepare fruits for garnish.

Before dinner: Fry fritters and serve with cocktails.

Ten minutes before serving: Heat soup and add crab meat. Remove chicken and keep warm; make gravy.

While serving soup: Reheat cucumbers in oven; leave oven on.

After serving soup: Bake fruits.

Just before dessert: Flame the fruits. BOMBAS DE CAMARONES Y PAPAS (Shrimp and Potato Fritters) (Makes 3 dozen fritters to serve 6 to 8)

Crab meat can be substituted for the shrimp.

1/2 pound potatoes, peeled and cut in chunks

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter

1 bunch scallions, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 pound cooked shrimp, peeled and coarsely chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup grated gruye`re cheese

2 egg yolks

Oil for frying

FOR THE BREADING:

2 cups flour

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs

Put potatoes in a pan of cold salted water, cover, and simmer until tender when pierced with a fork, 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile prepare the shrimp. In a large frying pan melt butter and saute' scallions and garlic until soft but not browned. Add shrimp, salt and pepper and continue cooking until shrimp are opaque, 1 to 2 minutes.

Drain potatoes and mash them or work through a ricer into a bowl. Stir in shrimp mixture and let cool slightly. Stir in cheese and egg yolks and taste for seasoning. Chill mixture thoroughly.

Divide mixture into tablespoonfuls. Flour your hands, roll mixture into balls, and set on them on waxed paper. To bread them: put flour, egg and bread crumbs in separate bowls. Roll a ball in flour, dip it in egg, draining off excess, then coat it in bread crumbs. Refrigerate breaded fritters, uncovered, at least an hour or up to 24 hours. They can also be frozen.

To finish: heat oil to 375 degrees. Fry fritters a few at a time until golden brown. Serve them at once.

CREAM OF CRAB SOUP (6 servings)

Simplicity itself with cooked crab meat.

1/3 cup butter

2 scallions, chopped

1/3 cup flour

1 quart milk

2 cups light cream

1/2 cup sherry

Salt and pepper to taste

1 pound crab meat

Juice of 2 limes

Dash angostura bitters

Melt butter in a large saucepan, add scallions, and saute' until soft but not browned. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly until it stops foaming. Whisk in milk and bring sauce to the boil, whisking constantly until it thickens. Add cream, sherry, salt and pepper and simmer soup for 20 minutes. Soup can be made a day ahead and refrigerated.

To finish: heat soup until it simmers. Add crab meat and lime juice and heat gently 3 to 5 minutes until soup is hot and crab meat heated through. Season to taste with several drops of bitters and serve.

POLLO RELLENO CON COCO (Stuffed Chicken with Coconut) (6 servings)

A large chicken is easier to find than a small turkey, especially in the Caribbean.

FOR THE STUFFING:

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter

1 large onion, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

6 ounces cooked ham, chopped

1/4 cup white wine

1/4 cup raisins

1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

5 slices white bread, cubed

FOR THE CHICKEN:

6-pound roasting chicken

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter

1 cup water

FOR DECORATION:

2 oranges, halved and sliced

2 lemons, halved and sliced

1 mango

1 small papaya, sliced

For the stuffing: melt butter in a large frying pan, add onion, garlic, salt and pepper, and cook until vegetables are soft but not brown. Stir in ham and wine; bring liquid to a boil and simmer until reduced by half. Take from the heat, add raisins, coconut and bread; taste for seasoning. Let the stuffing cool. It can be refrigerated up to 2 days.

Dry chicken with paper towel and season the cavity. Loosely fill the cavity with stuffing and truss the bird or fasten with skewers. Note: Do not stuff chicken until ready to roast it.

Put chicken on its back in a roasting pan, spread with butter, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast in a 400-degree oven, basting often, until the skin starts to brown, about 30 minutes. Turn bird onto its breast and continue cooking 30 minutes longer. Finally turn chicken again onto its back and continue roasting 30 to 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted in center of stuffing is hot to the touch when withdrawn after 30 seconds.

Meanwhile, prepare the serving platter: arrange orange and lemon slices overlapping around edge. With a knife, cut mango in half through to the pit. With a tablespoon pry flesh from pit to release one half. Use spoon to scoop pit from other half. With knife, score mango flesh in large squares cutting through to skin. Invert skin so flesh sticks out like a hedgehog. Set halves at each end of platter. Arrange papaya slices around mango.

Discard trussing strings from chicken and keep the bird warm. For the gravy: pour excess fat from roasting pan. If necessary boil pan juices until reduced to a glaze. Add water and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve juices. Taste gravy for seasoning and strain into a bowl. Serve chicken on platter with fruit, with gravy separately.

PEPINOS EN SALSA DE NARANJA (Cucumbers in Orange Sauce) (6 servings)

An unexpectedly successful combination.

Zest of 1 orange, cut in julienne strips

4 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and cut in 3/8-inch slices

1 cup orange juice

Salt and pepper to taste

1 teaspoon cornstarch, mixed to a paste with 1 tablespoon orange juice

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter, cut in small pieces

Few drops lemon juice (optional)

Put orange zest in a small pan with water to cover and boil 2 to 3 minutes. Drain, rinse zest under cold water, and drain thoroughly.

Boil cucumbers in salted water until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain them, put in a serving bowl and keep warm.

Bring orange juice with salt and pepper to a boil in a saucepan. Whisk in cornstarch mixture to thicken the juice so it coats the back of a spoon. Take from the heat and gently stir in butter so it melts and lightly thickens the sauce.

Stir in julienne and taste for seasoning, adding lemon juice if necessary, and pour over the cucumbers.

The cucumbers can be prepared up to 3 hours ahead. Reheat them, covered, in a 400-degree oven for 8 to 12 minutes.

PINEAPPLE AND PLANTAIN FLAMBE (6 servings)

Plantains are available in Latin American stores, but green bananas can be substituted.

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter

1 pineapple, peeled, cored, halved and sliced

6 medium plantains, peeled and sliced diagonally

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/3 cup dark brown sugar

1/4 cup rum

Melt butter in a 8-cup, flameproof baking dish, turning dish to coat inside with butter. Arrange fruit in overlapping layers in the dish. Add any pineapple juice and sprinkle fruit with nutmeg, allspice and sugar.

Cover dish with foil and bake in a 400-degree oven until fruit is tender and sugar has melted, about 20 minutes. Heat rum in a saucepan until hot. Light it with a match and pour it, flaming, over the fruit. Serve immediately.