Pittsboro, N.C. — After spending the workweek cooking classic dishes for diners at Carolina Crossroads, plus hundreds more guests attending elegant weddings and events at The Carolina Inn, James Clark likes nothing better than to unwind at home.
He and his family live in a window-filled retreat on a 350-acre parcel in Pittsboro that feels much more remote than his short drive to work. It's a place where he can fish brim in the shimmering lake behind the house and ride a mud-splattered ATV to hunt in woods. But not on Sundays.
"Sunday is definitely the day for home," James says as he peeks under a sheet of foil covering a large cast-iron skillet, one of two perched on an electric range. In one he's cooking shrimp purloo, a flavorful one-pot rice dish; the other holds oil to fry crisp, lightly breaded okra using his grandmother's recipe.
"I love fried okra," says Paige, 7, who is helping her mother, pastry chef Marcey Clark, make biscuits. Paige issues similarly enthusiastic endorsements of pimento cheese, coconut meringue pie and nearly every imaginable activity. "She likes to help in the kitchen, and I like to supervise," quips Marcey, who married James 20 years ago after they met at the New England Culinary Institute. "She nearly burned the house down once with her E Z Bake Oven. There was black smoke everywhere."
Madison, 14, rolls her eyes at her kid sister. She, too, has found her place in the family kitchen, where she's mastered whoopie pies and fearlessly cooks with whatever she finds in the pantry.
James was born in Elizabeth City and later moved to Atlanta, where he started cooking during his senior year of high school. He chose to remain there when his mother moved back to a family home place after his grandmother died. He spent a lot of time with a friend who lived with his newly divorced father.
"His dad was gone a lot, so we'd just raid the freezer and cook whatever we could find," James recalls. "Turns out, we both were pretty good at it."
The friends moved to Charleston to attend culinary school. James decided to wait and gain experience first in restaurant kitchens, where he easily found work. He later chose New England for training out of a desire for new experiences.
"I'd never lived anywhere but the South, and I wanted to try different things," he says. "He didn't think that would mean me," Marcey adds, sharing how James once asked her for advice about dating a mutual friend. "I went to the concert he planned to take her to. And here we are!"
Their romance blossomed even after James, renowned for dishes using sustainable fish, learned that Marcey is allergic to all fin fish. "I can't cook fish if she's in the house. I can't even cook it the yard," James says. "But you do when mom is away," pipes in Paige, who suddenly casts a sheepish glance at her mother. "Well, he does, and I'm glad," she adds, as everyone breaks into laughter.
After pouring sweet tea and setting dinner on the table, the family joins hands to say grace. "So many blessings," James says affectionately, surrounded by the women in his life. "Let's eat."
Recipe: Shrimp Purloo
- 3 Tbsp. oil or butter
- 1 lb. Andouille sausage, diced
- 4 ribs celery, small diced
- 1 medium sweet onion, small diced
- 2 green peppers, small diced
- 3 Roma tomatoes, diced
- 3 bay leaves
- 3 Tbsp. chili powder
- 3 Tbsp. ground coriander
- 2 Tbsp. celery seed
- 2 Tbsp. Old Bay Seasoning
- 5 cups stock (chicken, shrimp or vegetable)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 cups Carolina Gold Rice (or Mahatma will do)
- 5 springs fresh thyme
- 1 lb. Carolina shrimp (21-25), peeled and deveined
In a heavy bottom pot (or use a cast-iron skillet that’s at least 12 inches in diameter), heat the oil or butter and brown the Andouille sausage. Remove sausage, leaving the drippings in the pan. Add the celery, onions and peppers and sweat until they vegetables are just about to caramelize. Add the tomatoes and the reserved sausage and continue to cook. Add all your spices, except for the salt and pepper, and continue to cook until they are all incorporated and slightly toasted.
Add the stock and bring to a simmer. Allow the stock to simmer for 8 to 12 minutes, then taste the stock and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Add your rice and thyme and cover and allow to cook for about 15 minutes. Once the rice has come to the top of the pan, but there is still some liquid left, add the shrimp and gently stir them in. Cover the rice and allow to finish cooking until rice is tender and shrimp are pink. Remove from heat and let stand for 15 minutes. Uncover, remove the thyme sprigs and bay leaves, and serve.
Recipe: Fried Okra
- 2 eggs
- 2 cups buttermilk
- 1½ lbs. okra, cut lengthwise
- 2 cups flour
- 2 cups white cornmeal
- 2 qts. peanut oil
- Salt and pepper
Beat the eggs and add the buttermilk; pour over the okra and allow to soak for 10 to 12 minutes.
Mix the flour and cornmeal in a small paper bag with the pepper only. Once the okra has soaked, drain off the excess buttermilk and egg and add to the flour-cornmeal mixture in small batches so it does not clump.
Heat oil to 350 degrees in a large skillet, preferably cast iron. Add breaded okra to the pan and fry until golden brown. Remove to drain on a paper bag, then sprinkle with the salt. Serve immediately.
Editor’s Note: Chef Clark is participating in the Grand Taste Experience on April 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the Durham Armory, part of Taste 2015, a four-day food festival in Durham. Tickets are on sale now at tastetheevent.com. Spend the evening savoring dishes created by 20 of the best chefs in the region, and meet local beverage makers producing your favorite beer, soda, coffees and spirits. A portion of proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Durham Branch of the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina.