Pittsboro, N.C. — Brendan Cox is well known for the seasonal farm-to-table fare he serves at Oakleaf in Pittsboro. While the language he uses to talk about technique is peppered with classic French terms, the meals he prepares in his home kitchen rely more on what he and wife Leslie enjoyed growing up.
"We don't do fancy at home," Brendan says as he rapidly slices onions before sweeping them into a copper pan, part of a set that was a wedding gift from his mother. "I love casseroles. My favorite is King Ranch Chicken."
The dish is a classic weeknight throw-together that involves cooked, shredded chicken and mushrooms in a sauce made with cheddar cheese, a can of Rotel tomatoes with green chiles, and a can of cream of chicken or cream of mushroom soup.
"Yes, we have been known to have that in the house," Brendan says of the condensed soup shortcut long favored by home cooks. "It's what I grew up with. Taste memory is such a big deal with food. One bite can take you back to a place that makes you happy."
On a recent Sunday, Brendan was cooking a big family meal to celebrate the birthday of his mother-in-law, Janice Long of Sanford. The dinner featured an herb-crusted rib roast, Brussels sprouts with bacon, potato gratin and balsamic-glazed shallots.
"None of these are especially difficult. The sides can be started early and warmed to finish while the roast rests before slicing," Brendan says as the kitchen fills with the rich aromas of bacon and bubbling cream. "Anyone can learn to make these. I didn't start cooking until I was in college and needed beer money."
Brendan, who grew up near D.C., started his culinary career as a dishwasher in a small restaurant on the Chesapeake Bay. He considered culinary school but found that his natural skills helped him advance quickly. He cooked at Circle Bistro and DC Coast, fine dining hotspots in the nation's capital, before moving the family to Pittsboro in 2011.
They consider themselves lucky to have bought a house they admired every time they drove south to Sanford to visit Leslie's parents. They were luckier still when they learned that a temporary art gallery in the newly restored Chatham Mills, just a mile from their driveway, was available as a restaurant space. Oakleaf opened to instant acclaim in May 2012.
Back at the house, middle daughter Charlotte, 8, happily helps her mother assemble and frost a birthday cake. Siblings, Catie, 12, and Evan, 8, join their grandparents in the den to snack on sliced cheese and hot sausage dip scooped with Town House crackers.
Brendan, who admits to being a picky eater as a child, agrees with Leslie's rule that the children have to try at least a bite of anything served at home or at the restaurant, where they typically eat have dinner once or twice a week. "Tonight, Evan will pick out the bacon and leave the Brussels," Brendan says, "but at least he gives it a shot."
Charlotte, a born foodie, doesn't hesitate when asked about her favorite item on daddy's menu. "Oh, duck confit," she says dreamily as her father grins with pride. "I love it."
Recipe: Yukon Gold Potato Gratin
- 6 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced thin
- 1 qt. heavy cream
- 1 sweet onion, julienned
- 2 bunches fresh thyme, stemmed
- 2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and toss. In a pan, casserole or sautéuse, layer the potatoes in a circular, overlapping pattern. Pour in remaining cream. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove cover and continue cooking until golden brown. Remove from oven and serve warm.
Recipe: Bacon-Shallot Jam
- 1/2 lb. bacon, cut into thick matchsticks
- 3 medium shallots, julienned
- 1 cup sherry vinegar
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 bay leaf
In a heavy-bottomed pan, render bacon for about 10 minutes over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until colored. Deglaze with vinegar and add sugar and bay leaf. Turn heat to low and cook until shiny.
We used this with pan roasted Brussels sprouts, but it's a valuable addition to any roasted vegetables in almost any season.