With winter approaching, it’s time to bring out your soup pot and chef’s knife for a season of comfort cooking. Traverse food and wine editor Tim Tebeau talks seasonal recipes with Patrick Brys of Brys Estate in Traverse City, originally published in the November 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
Wind snatches tattered yellow leaves from cabernet franc vines on Brys Estate and sends them cartwheeling past Patrick Brys’s kitchen window. Inside, the savory vapors of roasted mushrooms, wine-braised short ribs and rosemary-studded potatoes promise a cold-weather comfort feast to combat this darkest month.
Six years after a summer experiment that brought Patrick and partner Erick Outcalt from Los Angeles to the then-fledgling family wine estate on Old Mission Peninsula, Patrick is now fully embedded in the business as operations manager and resident gourmand. Driven by the wisdom that his family’s wines are best experienced at the dinner table, Brys, a passionate amateur chef, has developed a cadre of seasonal recipes that harness the flavors of Northern Michigan’s fields and forests and pairs them with the meticulously crafted wines grown and vinified on his family’s 40-acre vineyard. With winter rapping its cold knuckles on the door, we venture into the kitchen at Brys Estate to get a vintner’s perspective on the joy and community of cold weather comfort cooking.
“Food and wine go hand in hand,” Patrick Brys posits as he pulls a cork from his family’s 2013 pinot noir, whose layers of cherry, spice and earth will permeate the braising liquid in his rich preparation of beef short ribs.
“We want our wines to be special and something that people feel proud to share with their guests. When I joined the winery in 2009 I took over our newsletter and started developing recipes that would turn our bottles into a whole experience.” Brys’s experiential outreach to his hundreds of wine club members has evolved into a comprehensive virtual cookbook on the winery’s website, where dozens of recipes are documented with professional food photography, suggested pairings and studio-grade video tutorials.
While his genuine love of food and strategic marketing savvy drive Brys’s success he insists that his methods in the kitchen are mostly improvisational. “I look for inspiration in cookbooks and local restaurants then go in the kitchen and shoot from the hip,” Brys explains. “I’m always looking to create fresh, simple seasonal meals that are sophisticated enough to be worthy of a dinner party but don’t take the whole day to prepare.” Patrick’s hip shots, however, are precise and belie an awareness of flavor, texture and presentation far beyond the sloppy fusions often found in “suggested recipes.” This simple, seasonal sophistication manifests in spring green couscous, a nod to the gourmet burger zeitgeist with Brys’s feta-stuffed lamb burgers or as a tasty homage to autumn in his signature cream of mushroom and herb soup.
With November’s short days and persistent north winds, Patrick Brys likes nothing better than to uncork a bottle of dark and textural cabernet franc and settle into the delights of slow food. “I grew up in Texas and California, so it took me many years to understand the cold weather effect on cooking, but now when I think of winter recipes, I’m thinking comfort,” Patrick says. “I get into richer, heartier foods that braise away all day and fill the house with great aromas.”
To effuse that precious olfactory umami that hangs in every crevice of the house, Brys’s winter recipes center on proteins that need long, low heat methods. Lamb shanks, short ribs, pork spareribs and chicken thighs will all find their way into a deep roasting pan or cast iron enamel Dutch oven to slowly melt over a bed of mirepoix or in a rich wine stock. Winter squashes, Brussels sprouts, root vegetables and cauliflower make up the meal’s essential vegetables, and Brys likes them roasted. “A hot oven, olive oil, salt, pepper and a sheet tray are all you need to make magic with these seasonal vegetables,” Brys says.
Brys’s delectable magic tricks are impossible without the tools of the trade, however, and he insists that aspiring home cooks get properly outfitted with the right equipment and ingredients. “I always send people to local kitchen shops like Cutler’s in Petoskey and Mary’s Kitchen Port in Traverse City,” Brys says. “They carry high quality cookware and, more importantly, have knowledgeable staff to guide you.” On Brys’s list of essential gear for comfort food: a good Dutch oven, a stainless steel sheet tray, soup pot, sauce pan, extra sharp eight-inch chef’s knife, and an immersion blender for pureeing soups and thickening sauces.
Toeing the line of simple, ingredient-based cooking, Patrick keeps his pantry staples pretty straightforward, “Olive oil, salt and pepper pretty much sums up my spice philosophy. When a recipe has more than eight to 10 ingredients it starts to get overwhelming,” he laments. To keep it real, Brys recommends high quality olive oil, both for cooking and finishing applications, chicken, beef and vegetable stocks, fresh peppercorns and the cook’s ultimate currency, salt. “Salt is critical,” Brys says, “without it food tastes pretty bland. For cooking I prefer to use Kosher salt for its texture, weight and consistency. Sea salt is great for finishing.”
A long-simmered winter stew finished with the finest, hand-harvested sea salt flakes is nothing though without the company of wine, both in the food and in the glass of the chef and his guests. “Our wines are designed to be shared with food, it brings them to life. When you find the right pairing both the food and the wine taste better.” For Brys, pairing, like recipe creation, is a relative and approximate science, and while some oeno-truisms can always be counted on, pinot noir with mushrooms for example, he’s a big fan of experimentation. “My rule with food and wine pairing is to just try it. Everyone’s palette perceives flavors slightly differently, and we’ve found in testing our wines with our recipes we’ve sometimes been very surprised to find that an aged white may stand up beautifully to a protein dish or that grilled romaine is the best with cabernet franc.”
For Patrick Brys, the slow and simple art of hearty winter dishes and the perceived magic of food and wine chemistry are foremost pleasures to be shared with friends and family. “With our pace of life slowed just a little, we have time for this in the winter,” Patrick reflects. “Slow food recipes can be prepped and put in the oven while you straighten the house and open wine. When everyone arrives and has a glass in their hand, the food comes out, the lid comes off, and it’s something really special; one of the great joys, in fact.” Brys’s great joy is fully realized as the braised and roasted components of the meal coalesce with the wine in the glass. “You have these flavors of the season, of the moment, on your plate; on the other hand you have a wine that was produced years in the past and mirrors a different growing season. We all get to sit down together and experience flavors from different points in time.”