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Stacy Varner prepares healthy meals inspired by her Greek heritage

Stacy Varner has been with Doctors Hospital for almost 17 years. She grew up cooking with her mother and both grandmothers at home and in her family-owned restaurants in Lewistown, Pa. She also says she's self-taught. But if it weren't for the women in her family, she says "my pantry would be lacking the main ingredient ... love."

She was 12 when she got her first job in her family's restaurant -- Leoras' restaurant -- as a dishwasher.

It was in the summer, when visiting her father and step-mother.

"My uncle paid me $2.12 an hour to wash dishes, clean tables and help make pies for a few days a week about four hours a day for spending money and so I could learn the restaurant business for the floor up ..."

From then on, she worked in every capacity in a restaurant.

Varner, 47, moved to Columbus in 1976, when her step-father's job brought him here.

While studying at the University of Georgia, Varner had no idea she'd end up cooking for a living. In fact, she majored in art, drawing andd painting to be exact.

"Life took me on a different path," she said.

She worked in area restaurants and just as she was getting fed up working for someone else, a food supplier told her there was an opening at Doctors Hospital.

Varner applied and got the job. Today, she is the executive chef and food services director.

"It's my second family," Varner said. "I can make a difference in someone's life every day."

She said she can help a patient's last few days on earth a little more enjoyable by cooking a favorite dish. Or by teaching a staff member how to do a simple task in the kitchen that will make a difference at home.

"I an in a life of service as opposed than having a grand existence in an upscale restaurant," Varner said. "I think I have more of an input in people's lives."

It's not all cooking food in the hospital's cafeteria or for patients. She often spends her off hours, teaching cooking classes or making meals for charitable events or for special events.

"I get a chance to do that, but I also have a chance to have a life" outside the kitchen, Varner said.

In the hospital's small cafeteria, which is set up like a restaurant, most of the "customers" are patients and their families. But a big number of guests are just people in for a meal.

"About 10 percent are just people who come to have lunch with us," Varner said.

Don't worry -- it's not "hospital" food. About 90 percent of the food is prepared from scratch in her kitchen, Varner said.

And since it is a hospital, a lot of the menu is considered to be healthy, with a good bit of it vegetarian. But you'll still see fried chicken for those who want it.

"We try to give as many alternatives as we can," she said.

Varner shared her recipes, many of them from her Greek heritage, with her.

CHICKEN WITH HONEY, LEMON AND FRESH OREGANO

6 chicken breasts, boneless, skinless

2 cups of wildflower honey

Extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

1 clove elephant garlic, minced

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

1 cup fresh chopped oregano

Juice of three fresh lemons

Season chicken with fresh ground sea salt and pepper and coat in extra virgin olive oil. Let sit for at least 20 minutes.

Add approximately one tablespoon of the olive oil to a hot sauté pan.

Add chicken breasts and sauté until brown on both sides.

Add honey, lemon, rosemary and garlic and cook covered until breasts are done and tender.

Remove chicken and rosemary from pan.

Check sauce for seasoning

Slice chicken into strips and arrange on platter.

Add fresh chopped oregano to sauce, with the heat turned off allowing it to wilt but not lose its flavor intensity.

Pour over chicken strips and serve hot or at room temperature.

HORIATIKI VILLAGE SALAD

4 large cucumbers (peeled and seeded or not, your preference)

2 large red onions

4 cans of artichoke bottoms or hearts, drained (does not really matter

which one)

10 assorted heirloom tomatoes quartered

1 pint tomato grapes

Kalamata olives pitted or whole -- amount to your personal preference

Feta cheese -- amount to your personal preference

Fig balsamic vinegar

BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE

1 teaspoon Greek seasoning

1 teaspoon honey

1 cup fresh oregano leaves

Use two-to-one ratio for olive oil and fig balsamic vinegar respectively

Prepare and add all veggies to salad bowl.

Prepare vinaigrette and add to veggies.

Add feta.

Let sit for at least two hours prior to serving in the refrigerator.

Great served with warmed pita & hummus.

Great with homemade herbed flatbread croutons tossed into it. Varner will also use Indian naan bread or pita.

KARITHOPETA (GREEK WALNUT CAKE)

3 eggs

1½ cup sugar

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup buttermilk or soured milk

2¼ cup sifted cake flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon cloves (ground)

1½ cups chopped walnuts

SYRUP

1½ cup sugar

1 cup water

Juice and zest from ½-to-1 lemon, depending on your taste

1 stick cinnamon

Mix first four ingredients together until well blended.

Mix remaining ingredients in a separate bowl.

Then add wet mixture gradually to dry mixture slowly until thoroughly mixed scraping sides and bottoms of bowl constantly.

Bake in greased 13-inch-by-9-inch pan at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes.

Cool cake thoroughly in pan.

Cut into diamond shapes.

Boil syrup ingredients in saucepan for five minutes and pour over

cooled cake.

Makes 12-14 servings

SESAME NOODLES

2 packages of soba noodles (available in most grocery stores)

½ cup sesame oil

¼ cup Ponzu (available in most grocery stores)

1/8th cup rice wine vinegar

½ elephant garlic clove minced

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 cup blond sesame seeds

1 cup black sesame seeds

1 bunch scallions finely sliced

1 grated carrot

Prepare soba noodles and do not rinse.

Mix all remaining ingredients in separate bowl and blend well.

Add to the noodles and toss until all ingredients are well incorporated.

Garnish by tossing in sliced green onion and grated carrot.

Can be served warm or cold, preferably cold.

VEGETABLE MÉLANGE

2 Yellow squash -- cut in ¼-inch strips lengthwise and then cut in slices.

3 ears corn (white, yellow or mixed)

1 pack baby sweet peppers cut in half

1 large red onion

2 bunches pencil asparagus -- bottom1/3rd removed -- the remaining cut in

half

1 package smoked sun-dried tomatoes

2 packages of assorted wild fresh mushrooms, rinsed and sliced

2 bags mini baby carrots

Olive oil to coat -- toss well

1 -2 packages of tomato grapes whole

¼ cup fresh thyme

Fresh ground sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Granulated garlic to taste

Prepares veggies as directed.

Place in large mixing bowl and toss with olive oil, garlic, thyme and salt and pepper.

Pour into baking pan coated with extra virgin olive oil.

Bake covered until veggies are al dente -- or "to the tooth" crunchy soft or to the texture of your choosing.

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