IF WE were intended to suffer through winter, we would have been born with fur. But suffer many of us do, and more than the cold. We must also endure the prospect of seeing friends who are sporting suntans from Caribbean vacations.
But modern technology can replicate that tan with a sun lamp, and air transportation can make it possible to enjoy the fruits, vegetables and flowers found in the tropics. So for your next party, invite friends who couldn't make the great escape to come over for an evening of exotic tastes.
Set the scene with a trip to the florist for large palm leaves, tea leaves and a few flowers native to the Caribbean. While birds of paradise and gardenias are more costly than daisies, you only need a few to make a dramatic impact around the house and on the buffet table. If you have shells from past vacations, place them in the bottom of a large glass bowl and float a few orchids on the top of the water. Straw place mats or some inexpensive fans from department stores add to the environment.
The flavors of the tropics are equally important. Even martini mavens and con- firmed enophiles seem to gravitate to tall, sweet rum drinks at the sight of the first palm tree -- or leaf in this case. The recipe for pina coladas -- those rich coconut and pineapple concoctions that are like milk shakes for adults -- is right on the can of Coco Lopez. And this is one time that toothpicks with cubes of pineapple, orange and cherry are acceptable garnishes. For those who don't like rum in any climate, dust off the tonic and bitter lemon you packed away in the fall.
The buffet table should be as colorful as the drinks. A fruit salad of pineapple, orange, banana and mango, served from scooped-out pineapple shells, could serve as a centerpiece. Black turtle beans stewed with cinnamon and spices, along with a bowl of steamed rice mixed with toasted cashew nuts, are simple yet authentic side dishes, and slices of fried plantain (a fruit similar to bananas) can be prepared in advance and reheated in a hot oven (do not salt them until they are reheated or they will become soggy).
For entrees, there are many flavors -- ranging from subtle to spicy -- native to the region's islands. Curried shrimp, shrimp creole, a simple baked or grilled fish drizzled with lime juice and spices or a roast loin of pork are all good choices. Rub the pork roast with freshly grated ginger, allspice, garlic and cinnamon as they would in Jamaica.
Or, you could proffer the sort of lavish cold buffet created at many island hotels with a selections of cold meats and seafood and a salad that combines black beans and papaya in a citrus vinaigrette.
It should be a relaxing evening to conjure memories of brilliant sunsets, and hopes that spring is not too far away. BLACK BEAN AND PAPAYA SALAD
Serves 8 to 10
1 pound dried black turtle beans
1 cinnamon stick
2 cloves garlic, smashed
Salt and pepper to taste
3 red bell peppers, cored, seeded and finely diced
2 ripe papayas, peeled, seeded and finely diced
2 shallots, chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced fine
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons lime juice
1/4 cup orange juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 cup salad oil In a colander, wash the beans under cold running water, picking out any broken beans or pebbles. Either soak in water to cover overnight, or bring to a boil and simmer 2 minutes, then let them stand covered for 1 hour.
Add the cinnamon stick, garlic cloves, salt and pepper to the beans and bring to a boil. Simmer for 1 hour, until the beans are cooked but still slightly crisp. Remove the cinnamon and garlic and rinse the beans in a strainer. Set aside.
Mix the rinsed beans with the diced red pepper and papaya.
For the dressing: Mix the shallots, garlic, mustard, sugar, lime and orange juice, salt and pepper in a jar with a screw cap. Shake well. Add the oil in 1/4-cup additions, shaking well to emulsify the dressing.
Toss the dressing with the salad and mound onto a platter lined with lettuce leaves.
Note: The beans can be prepared a day in advance; however, the salad should not be assembled more than 2 hours before serving.