Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Go Greek and go healthy for the Olympic Games

Ethnic Fare

The Associated Press

Jim Botsacos is ahead of the game, with his eye on the finishing line. As a chef, that is. He's been in culinary training for the 2004 Olympics for some time, figuring out how to keep everyone fittingly well-fed.

He offered tasty proof of his efforts at a special luncheon at Molyvos, the Greek restaurant in Manhattan where he is executive chef. For the occasion, he produced a nutritious menu made up of his original recipes, focusing on what he considers healthful, energy-producing indigenous Greek ingredients. Botsacos, who is of Greek-Italian descent, is an acclaimed exponent of Greek cuisine, both traditional and updated.

"We had a lot of fun planning the menu," he said, recalling research he and his chef colleagues did to figure out food fit for athletes. "We bounced around a lot of ideas, ending up with some derived from ancient traditions, and some from contemporary styles of cooking."

Guidelines included the use of lean protein, plenty of legumes, and olive oil rather than butter.

The tasting occasion was co-sponsored by the Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens, to reflect meals both the hotel and Molyvos plan to serve guests during the Olympics, opening in Athens Aug. 13.

The menu Botsacos developed for the lunch included a chickpea and olive-oil soup with crispy flatbread, and a tuna appetizer with an herb salad, cucumbers and thyme-honey vinaigrette.

The main course was lamb souvlaki (skewers of marinated lamb) with stuffed zucchini and a bulgur-wheat and lentil pilaf. For dessert, Botsacos served spiced poached pear, with ravani (semolina cake), Greek yogurt and a date and almond spoon sweet.

Lamb Souvlaki

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

1 tablespoon dried Greek oregano

11/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 tablespoon kosher salt

1/2 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

8 skewers (you can use metal, bamboo or a rosemary branch)

2 yellow bell peppers, core removed and cut into 1-inch-wide strips

1 red onion, peeled and cut into eighths (once cut, separate the layers of the onion so you have at least 24 pieces)

11/2 pounds lamb, cut from the leg into 24 equal cubes

First make the marinade: combine garlic, oregano, olive oil, salt and pepper in a bowl and set aside.

Thread each skewer first with a piece of pepper, then a piece of onion, followed by a piece of meat. Repeat this twice more until you have a total of three pieces of pepper, onion and lamb on the skewer. Thread remaining skewers in the same fashion.

Lay skewers in a shallow baking pan large enough to accommodate all eight skewers in one layer. Pour marinade over souvlaki, cover tightly (with lid or plastic wrap) and refrigerate overnight.

Bulgur Wheat and Lentil Pilaf

First, make a vegetable-herb tea:

1 onion, roughly chopped into large chunks

1 bay leaf

1 bunch of mint, stems only,

roughly chopped

1 sprig thyme

3 cinnamon sticks

10 cloves

1 head of garlic, halved

2 quarts water

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon whole peppercorns

Combine all ingredients in a stock pot and cook over medium-low heat for 25 minutes. Strain and reserve vegetable-herb tea liquid for cooking grains; discard solids.

Then, using:

31/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium white onion, peeled and finely diced

Kosher salt, to taste

1 cup bulgur wheat (also known as cracked wheat)

11/2 cups vegetable-herb tea

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 tablespoon fresh mint, thinly sliced

1 cup French (green) lentils, cooked

1 to 2 scallions, finely sliced

Zest of 1 lemon

11/2 cups toasted almonds

3/4 cup golden raisins (soaked in warm water to plump)

Place 21/2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a saucepot over medium heat, add diced onion with a pinch of salt and cook for 15 minutes, until onion is soft and translucent. Season again with salt to taste, stir, and add bulgur wheat. Stir to thoroughly coat grains. Add 11/2 cups vegetable-herb tea, stir and cover. Reduce heat to low. Cook bulgur wheat until the liquid evaporates, about 10 minutes. Cover pot, turn off heat and let wheat stand until it blooms, about 8 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff grains to separate.

Let grains stand until cooled to room temperature, then fluff again to separate. Just before serving, sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and fold in the parsley, mint, lentils, scallions, lemon zest, almonds and raisins.

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