It's also the ultimate in do-ahead ease, especially important if you're not just the host but the mother of the birthday boy or father of the grad with lots to tend to.
Visit your favorite restaurant salad bar to borrow inspiration on how your salad bar/buffet might be set up. Note that the traffic pattern has been carefully thought out: A logical "assembly line" starts with bowls and silverware, moves along to salad greens, then to other vegetables, past meats, poultry and heartier ingredients, and finally arrives at dressings, toppings and garnishes. Properly organized, a salad bar is extra easy on the host: You're not stuck in the kitchen or chained to the grill.
But a salad bar does have its own special set of challenges - timing and refrigeration. Ingredients must be chopped, shredded and diced in advance - but not too far in advance - and kept properly chilled. A big refrigerator (or an extra refrigerator, or borrowed space in a neighbor's refrigerator) is a necessity if your invitation list is large. So are lots of insulated servers and plenty of crushed ice.
Here are some tips for setting up:
Pick a cool and shady spot away from the breeze. Chop, shred, tear and dice vegetables ahead of time. (You can toss-dry lots of greens in a white cotton pillowcase.) Store ingredients in separate plastic bags in the refrigerator or on ice.
Here's an interesting way to set up a salad bar: put a small wading pool on a round picnic table. Fill it with crushed ice, then set individual bowls of ingredients in the ice.
Keep everything covered with a clean plastic sheet until serving time. Other interesting places to set up your ice-bedded salad bar: vegetable crates, a child's wagon, a tot-sized plastic raft, a wheelbarrow . . . anything evocative of farm-freshness. Flank your salad bar with two small tables: one for dishes and utensils; the other for dressings, toppings and garnishes. Arrange things in the order of use.
Beg, borrow or buy generous salad bowls, not plates. If you opt for throw- away bowls, be sure they're big, sturdy, plastic-coated and wetproof. Paper won't do.
Dice food small enough so it can be eaten with a fork - no knives needed. Forget about butter or other bread spreads: serve crackers, breadsticks or garlic bread instead.
Wine doesn't go with salad. Better beverage choices include beer (particularly light beers), iced tea, punches and spritzers, tall mixed drinks, spiked or not.
An easy way to put together a patio salad bar among friends is to assign different ingredients to each person attending (helps solve the refrigerator space problem).
To simplify salad bar choices, you might focus on an ethnic theme. An Italian salad bar, for example, with a variety of antipasto ingredients. Or go Middle Eastern: lots of cucumbers, olives, raw zucchini, tomatoes, fresh mint, plus diced feta cheese, hard-cooked eggs, smoked fish, cold cooked lamb and chicken, with yogurt-based salad dressings and pita bread. Or try a Mexican salad bar with taco toss-ups and chilled fajita fillings. Or go Pacific Rim with trim seafood salads and tropical fruits.
Continue the garden menu theme through dessert time: a hollowed-out watermelon filled with fresh berries and sliced fruit. Or a serve-yourself ''sundae bar" with frozen yogurt and a variety of fresh fruits for topping.
VEGE several kinds of torn lettuce, shredded cabbage and other salad greens, sliced cucumbers and radishes, purple onion rings and sliced scallions, red and green peppers and fresh parsley. Also: raw spinach, sliced mushrooms and zucchini, shredded carrot and shelled peas, broccoli buds and cauliflorets, fresh raw green beans, bamboo shoots and beansprouts.
FRUITS: unpeeled lemon-dipped cubes of apple, pear and nectarine, chunks of eating oranges, seedless grapes.
FLOWERS AND HERBS: add eye-appeal to your greenery with edible flower petals: chive blossoms, nasturtium.
HEARTY FOODS: lean, bite-size cubes of cooked lean marinated beef, pork, ham or lamb, diced chicken or cold smoked turkey, chilled shellfish, poached or smoked tuna or salmon, lowfat cheeses in bite-size cubes.
GARNISHES: diced cubes of low-fat cheese, dry-roasted nuts, sesame seeds, bacon-flavored bits, croutons, sliced stuffed olives, capers, pickle chips, fresh basil, oregano, mint or other fresh herbs from the garden, seasoned salt and pepper.
DRESSING: plain oil and vinegar, herbed vinegars, lemons and limes, crumbled bleu and feta cheese, a variety of bottled commercial dressings including some light and fat-free choices, your own favorite homemade dressings.