Cooking for a crowd? WineSpectator.com's "The Feast" turns to ace chefs—who better to advise on feeding the whole crew?—for recipes, prep advice and, of course, wine pairings. Plus, we'll give you 15 wines priced at $20 or less recommended by our editors. Get ready: It's time to feast!
Free time in late summer, whether bestowed by chance or stolen outright, can feel like winning the lottery. So how to cash in? By frittering away an afternoon with a few favorite people, a bottle or two of wine and a strong snack game—that’s how.
While there’s nothing wrong with store-bought goodies, take your hangtime to the next level with a spread of homemade dips inspired by the Greek coast, courtesy of George Pagonis, executive chef and partner of Kapnos in Washington, D.C. A first-generation Greek-American, Pagonis, 34, travels to his parents’ homeland once a year to visit family and conduct research with his restaurant team.
A few years ago, Pagonis and his staff explored the northern Aegean port town of Thessaloniki. At each waterfront venue, he says, “The first thing anybody would do, they’d crack open a bottle of white wine.” The meze—Greek snacks—served alongside didn’t exactly add up to a meal. It was something else, maybe something better: a long and blissful afternoon spent grazing by the sea.
Pagonis was charmed, and he reached into that trip for the menu he has provided here—but he’s doing it his way.
When Pagonis and partner Mike Isabella started planning Kapnos’s 2013 opening, they knew they wanted to anchor the restaurant in Greek flavors and preparations but jettison the Old World tropes that proliferate in Greek tavernas in the United States—moussaka, images of the Parthenon, Greek folk music—in favor of a fresher take. Pagonis contends that Kapnos, with its complex presentations, flair for remixes (roast duck with cherries and pistachio yogurt, for instance) and use of ancient plants from diverse cultures—such as amaranth, sumac and taro root—is more representative of Greece’s culinary scene today than the old-school joints are. “The cuisine has evolved so much,” he says.
The chef’s executions rely heavily on his French training. Raised in Alexandria, Va., where he did time as a dishwasher in his dad’s Greek diner, Pagonis attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., before working in D.C. at José Andrés’ Wine Spectator Award of Excellence–winning Greek spot Zaytinya, and then in New York at Sirio Maccioni’s fine-dining jewel Le Cirque and Charlie Palmer’s New American destination Aureole, both Best of Award of Excellence recipients.
The three dip recipes Pagonis has shared, all from the Kapnos menu, can be prepared up to four days in advance and are delicious straight from the fridge. (Do leave extra time to find carp roe; Greek markets and specialty stores often carry it, and it’s available online.)
“The cucumber is really the heart and soul of the tzatziki,” Pagonis says of his creamy, lemony, dill-flecked version. Before it’s added to the dip, the cucumber is quickly grated and then drained, ensuring that each bite contains subtle yet concentrated shavings of cucumber flavor that don’t water down the consistency.
The tzatziki includes another easy, sophisticated twist. “A French technique that I picked up is blanching your garlic,” he says. “It helps take that astringency away,” softening the garlic’s bite.
Pagonis’ riff on melitzanosalata, typically a simple eggplant dip, includes roasted red pepper, which he noticed in local versions of the dish in Thessaloniki. He also swaps out the traditional parsley for sweet mint and adds briny, rich feta, with toasted walnuts for texture.
The taramasalata, a fish roe dip, is a personal victory for Pagonis. “When we first opened up Kapnos, we wanted to do a really cool tarama, and it took me forever to nail it,” he says. After many hours testing several styles, he wound up with a version that includes velvety cauliflower, another nod to his training in French cuisine, in which pureed cauliflower is a frequent accompaniment to caviar. “That little bit of sweetness of the cauliflower, and the carp roe and the potato, they all work really well together.”
If you want to up the ante, follow Pagonis’ rigorously all-Greek ethos. “I’m Greek,” he says. “You gotta help the economy, you know?” He takes this credo beyond wine and yogurt to olive oil and even cheese: “No domestic feta. Greek feta.”
Pagonis and beverage director Taha Ismail picked two Greek bottlings to round out the summer feast. One is Pagonis’ go-to small-plates-and-chill sipper: the Gavalas Santorini 2016, which he first tasted, in an earlier vintage, on his sojourn in Thessaloniki. “Every time I drink it, it brings me back to that,” he says. The medium-bodied, minerally Assyrtiko is clean and savory, with green apple, lemon-lime and herbaceous notes that play particularly well with the lemony taramasalata and tzatziki.
The elegant La Tour Melas Idylle Achinos Rosé 2016 is a Provençal-style rosé, adding the indigenous Greek grape Agiorgitiko to the familiar mix of Grenache and Syrah. Its delicate floral and strawberry profile goes especially well with the melitzanosalata’s complex flavor and texture spectrum, and the bright acidity cuts through the creamy dairy elements of the melitzanosalata and tzatziki.
However you manage to capture these waning summer hours, make sure they're filled with festive foods and fresh wines. And don't forget the pita.
1. Peel cucumber, remove seeds, and grate on the large side of a box grater.
2. Toss the grated cucumber with the salt and drain in a colander for 2 hours.
3. Place garlic in a small pot and cover with water. Cover pot and bring to a boil. After about 30 seconds, drain. Repeat this process 2 more times. In a food processor or blender, puree the garlic until smooth. Measure out 1 tablespoon blanched garlic (it should be most or all of the garlic), and set aside.
4. Put yogurt in a large bowl. Add cucumber, 1 tablespoon of pureed garlic and remaining ingredients and whisk to combine. Taste, adjusting lemon juice, salt and dill as needed. Serve pita on the side. Serves 6 to 8.
1. Preheat oven to 375° F and preheat a grill to high.
2. Place peppers in a bowl and toss with canola oil and salt until coated. Place the peppers on a cookie sheet and transfer to the oven. Roast until the skin of the peppers is blistered and soft, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from oven, place in a bowl and cover with plastic. Let sit for at least 30 minutes. Leave oven on.
3. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, remove the stems, seeds and skin.
4. Using a small knife, stab the eggplants all over. Toss with canola oil and salt until coated, and place on the grill.
5. Grill eggplants until completely charred on 1 side, then rotate. Continue this process until the eggplants are completely falling apart and almost burned, about 1 hour. Transfer to a cutting board. Carefully make an insertion down the side of each eggplant. With a spoon, scoop out the insides of the eggplants.
6. While the eggplants are cooking, place the walnuts on a cookie sheet and toast in the oven until golden-brown, 7 to 10 minutes. Let cool and chop into small pieces.
7. Cut the eggplant into small pieces and dice the peppers into 1/2-inch-by-1/2-inch squares.
8. In a bowl, combine eggplant with red pepper. Add vinegar and olive oil, and stir to combine. Season to taste with kosher salt. Add onion, feta and mint, and stir into a cohesive spread.
9. Spread melitzanosalata on a plate. Sprinkle with walnuts, feta, mint, olive oil and sea salt. Serve pita on the side. Serves 6 to 8.
1. Preheat an oven to 350° F. Prick potatoes all over with a fork, then rub potatoes with a bit of oil to coat and sprinkle all over with salt. Roast potatoes about 1 hour, until skins are dry and insides feel soft when pierced with a fork. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel and mash with a potato masher.
2. Fill a pot with about 1 inch of water and place a steamer basket or pasta insert inside. Make sure the water level is right below the insert. Cover pot, turn heat to high, bring to a boil and reduce heat to medium, bringing water to a simmer. Place cauliflower in insert, cover pot and cook 5 to 7 minutes, until a paring knife slides into cauliflower easily. Remove and let cool.
3. Combine onion with cauliflower and transfer to refrigerator to chill.
4. Once the cauliflower-onion mixture is completely cooled, process it in a grinder using the small die, or process finely in a food mill, ricer or food processor. Drain in a mesh sieve for 30 minutes.
5. In a blender or food processor, process the tarama with half of the lemon juice (1/4 cup) for at least 5 minutes to break the eggs and remove the bitterness.
6. In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the potato, cauliflower mixture, tarama mixture and remaining 1/4 cup lemon juice. Blend on high speed until well-incorporated into a homogeneous mixture. With the mixer on medium speed, slowly drizzle in the 1 1/2 cups canola oil to create an emulsion.
7. Taste, and add more lemon juice as needed. If mixture is too thick, drizzle in more oil a tablespoon at a time until dip reaches the desired consistency. Serve pita on the side. Serves 4 to 6.
Note: This list showcases very good to outstanding white and rosé wines, priced at $20 or less, from recent Wine Spectator tastings. For more similar selections rated in the past year, see WineSpectator.com's Wine Ratings Search.
D. KOURTAKIS Assyrtiko Santorini 2014
A creamy white, with notes of dried coconut to the ripe apple, baked pear and lemon curd flavors. The richly spiced finish features accents of dried mint and sage. Drink now through 2020. 1,000 cases imported. From Greece.
FORSTREITER Grüner Veltliner Qualitätswein Trocken Niederösterreich Grooner 2015
A juicy white, with flavors of apricot, peach, thyme and white pepper. Vibrant and balanced in an easygoing way. Drink now. 6,610 cases imported. From Austria.
SANTO WINES Assyrtiko Santorini Trygos 2014
This rich version is filled with lemon curd, apple tart and white raspberry flavors that feature a fresh-tasting salinity. A smoky hint lingers on the well-spiced finish. Drink now through 2019. 500 cases imported. From Greece.
MARRAMIERO Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo Dama 2016
A well-balanced and clean-cut rosé, with a minerally undertow and aromas and flavors of ripe raspberry and plum, violet and star anise. Zesty finish. Drink now. 1,000 cases imported. From Italy.
SKOURAS Péloponnèse Rosé Zoe 2015
Fruity, with strawberry, plum and melon flavors that are fresh and juicy. Hints of dried meat show on the spicy finish. Drink now. 1,500 cases imported. From Greece.
DOMAINE VETRICCIE Corse Rosé 2016
Offers a fresh, racy feel, with good zip to the mix of blood orange and rose water notes, lined with a stony accent. Reveals a pretty orange zest hint at the very end. Niellucciu, Sciaccarellu and Grenache. Drink now. 3,600 cases imported. From France.
DOMAINE COSTA LAZARIDI Drama Amethystos White 2015
Firm, with juicy, crisp flavors of Gala apple, grapefruit and peach, featuring plenty of ripe citrus notes. The zesty finish features hints of white pepper. Sauvignon Blanc and Assyrtiko. Drink now. 2,000 cases imported. From Greece.
LAURENZ FIVE Grüner Veltliner Qualitätswein Trocken Niederösterreich Laurenz und Sophie Singing 2015
An expressive white, sporting peach, apple and floral notes. Picks up a light earthiness on the lingering finish. Drink now. 7,000 cases imported. From Austria.
LYRARAKIS Assyrtiko Crete 2015
This has minerally accents to the citrus and apple flavors. Clean and balanced, with some baked pineapple notes on the finish.Drink now. 925 cases imported. From Greece.
SKOURAS Moscofilero Péloponnèse Salto 2015
Offers floral aromas and flavors, with green apple and grapefruit notes. Features taut acidity, showing hints of savory herb and apricot on the finish. Drink now. 500 cases imported. From Greece.
UNION DE VIGNERONS DE L'ÎLE DE BEAUTÉ Vin de Corse Rosé Terra Corsa 2016
Light but lively, with cherry pit and watermelon rind notes that zip through, staying focused on the dry, stony finish. Niellucciu and Grenache. Drink now. 3,000 cases imported. From France.
UNION DE VIGNERONS DE L'ÎLE DE BEAUTÉ Corse Rosé Domaine Santa Giulietta 2016
Very fresh, with cherry pit, peach and rose water notes, backed by a light mineral twinge on the finish. Niellucciu and Grenache. Drink now. 4,500 cases imported. From France.
DOMAINE VETRICCIE Île de Beauté Rosé 2016
This has pretty watermelon and white cherry notes, with a zip of minerality adding cut to the finish. Pure and refreshing. Niellucciu, Sciaccarellu, Grenache and Merlot. Drink now. 3,600 cases imported. From France.
VOYATZI Moschofilero Péloponnèse Kyklos 2015
An aromatic white, with lemon-lime, gooseberry and crunchy green apple flavors. Dried sage and mint notes show on the spicy finish. Drink now. 750 cases imported. From Greece.
VINSKA KLET Sauvignon Blanc Primorska Giocato 2015
This juicy white is bright and medium-bodied, with lots of pink grapefruit, chive blossom and white pepper flavors. Zesty finish. Drink now. 6,000 cases imported. From Slovenia.