Saturday, October 18, 2014

Northern Greek Cooking Class with George Pagonis

I've been to the Hill Center DC before, and returned this time for the Northern Greek Cooking Class with Chef George Pagonis. Chef Pagonis is a recent cheftestant on Bravo's Season 12 of Top Chef. This class was advertised about two months before the show aired, but knowing that our area has produced some fantastic Top Chef alums, I grabbed a ticket to this event and asked fellow blogger, Lori - who is also a huge Top Chef fan - to join me. Naturally, she agreed.

George Pagonis is executive chef and partner at Mike Isabella's first Greek restaurant, Kapnos, here in DC. The upscale restaurant put inland Greek cuisine, including daily whole animal roasting, on the map in the nation's capital when it opened in 2013. Before opening Kapnos, Pagonis served as chef de cuisine at Mike Isabella's Italian-inspired flagship, Graffiato. Prior to that, Chef Pagonis has cooked at Aureole in New York under Christophe Bellanca and Marcus Ware; at Jose Andres' Zaytinya; and at New York’s Le Cirque. Chef Pagonis attended the University of Mary Washington and though he followed that up with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, he first earned his kitchen stripes at The Four Seasons, a Greek diner owner by his father in Alexandria, Virginia.

The class of about 14 sat around the commercial kitchen and watched Chef Pagonis prep each ingredient for our Northern Greek menu.  The session was more of a demo, rather than a hands-on cooking class. Chef Pagonis walked us through every step and explained the origin behind each dish, tips for the best brands and ingredients to use, and also cooking tricks that he's learned over the years such as no metal spoon in a metal bowl, and cook with canola oil versus olive oil since it won't burn as fast, nor impart too much flavor into your dish.  As he spoke and prepped the other ingredients, he did ask for a few volunteers to pluck fresh herbs.  Lori did a great job with the delicate dill as shown above.

First, Chef Pagonis started on the Kolokithokeftedes or zucchini fritters.  He cut and grated the fresh zucchini, noting that using the medium-tooth of a box grater was easiest.  Then, he cooked the zucchini on high heat for a few minutes just to draw out most of the water.  He drained the zucchini and set it aside to cool.  He then made Tzatziki by mixing shredded cucumber into fresh thick Greek yogurt seasoned with dill, garlic, salt, lemon juice, and olive oil.  This simple and delicious dip would be the base for our zucchini fritters.  Later, Chef Pagonis returned to the shredded zucchini and added in scallion, cheese, egg and panko bread crumbs for binding.  He hand-mixed and rolled out little fritters for frying.  The kolokithokeftedes were my favorite - the perfect mix of vegetables and cheese, all punched up in flavor by the mint and dill herbs.

Check out my Kolokithokeftedes recipe.

Chef Pagonis also served us a simple Greek Salad made of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, roasted red peppers, black olives, and topped with a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and Greek oregano.  He topped the salad with fresh chunks of Greek Feta cheese.

Chef Pagonis explained that the history of a Greek salad is simple because, in Greek, it means "from the village", and typically the country villages of Greece do not have much meat for everyday fare.  They just eat whatever fresh vegetables on hand.

We ate the salad while Chef Pagonis prepared the braised greens that would accompany the main dish.  Called xorta, this side dish is made with red onion, garlic, rainbow chard, mint, and sorrel - a lemony herb.  He simply braised down the greens so they were wilted perfectly and married with all the flavors.  These greens had so much bright flavor that I could eat a whole bowl.  Typically, I am not a fan of greens, as they can be quite bitter.  But the preparation of this dish was elevated with the use of sorrel.  Chef Pagonis mentioned this herb was one of his favorites, and he suggested the stems could be muddled down and used for a cocktail.  I think that is a fantastic idea and would make a lovely drink (Kapnos bartenders - listen to your Chef!).

Next, Chef Pagonis brought out fresh whole sea bass and demonstrated the 5 tests to check for optimum freshness: clean/red gills, clear eyes, fresh ocean smell of belly, firmness to touch, and overall shape (if it looks beat up, or smashed, it's probably no good.)  Then, almost as a redemption for the first challenge from Top Chef, Chef Pagonis proceeded to breakdown each fish and filet all the meat beautifully in record time.  He did this, all while explaining how to run your knife across the backbone, how to properly cut off the belly, and how to pull out the pin bones.

He cooked each piece of filet skin-down quickly in the pan before finishing in a 350 degree oven to cook through.  He served the Pan Seared Branzino over a bed of xorta, and allowed us to add our own extra dollops of tzatziki.  The fish was incredibly light and simple - as he did not add any oil or lemon juice.  Just a hint of salt to allow the fish to speak for itself.  I thought it tasted great, and is just like how they cook fish in Greece.

I had a great meal and learned so much from Chef Pagonis.  I was expecting to participate more, or have a little more hands-on experience with the cooking, but being that this was Chef Pagonis' first class, he just did what he was most comfortable with and took the reigns. At $85 per person, the price was a bit high for just a demo-type class, but we got to eat a full meal that was cooked personally by a Top Chef cheftestant. The class lasted 3 hours long, and was informative as Chef Pagonis provided tips the entire time, and answered any and all questions.

Check out Chef Pagonis' food for yourself at Kapnos, or look out for his new restaurant, Kapnos Taverna, to open soon in Arlington.  I also recommend you look out for other foodie events offered at the Hill Center.

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