Sweet Dreams

Did you ever have one of those dreams where you’re in a bakery or candy store surrounded by treats?  And you can’t decide what you’re gonna start with?  And right before you take the first bite you wake up?

Yeah, that happened to me.  I was sitting at a table in Chapel Hill, looking down at eight different gorgeous sweet treats.  Only this time, nobody was shaking me awake to take out the dog, or catch the school bus, or get ready for work.

I was awake and got to partake.

But before I take a bite, I should probably go back to the very beginning.

Chef James Clark is executive chef of the Crossroads Restaurant in the beautiful and historic Carolina Inn on the campus of UNC.  I met him right after he started there.  I can truthfully say that his friendship is one of the best things to have come from writing this column.

He has three main characteristics that make him particularly well-suited to his position.

1.) He is a nurturing host.  It all boils down to his desire to take care of people.  He observes his staff and guests with a paternal eye.  He desires to bring the best out of his employees by teaching and encouraging, rather than shaming and berating.  Toward every hotel and restaurant guest, he strives to exceed all of their desires and fulfill wishes they didn’t even know they possessed.

I have never left his kingdom without being full of delicious food, and delighted by the way that he can always add one more element to my time there that is both a complete surprise to me and just the right thing to make a visit unforgettably special; it’s Chef James’ modus operandi

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Madison Clark, and dad James.

2.) He is a good old Southern boy.  With all his heart he loves the food and culture of the South.  Chef reveres the creativity and skill of the generations before him.  He honors their history by getting the very best local ingredients, manipulating them with talent and a sense of history, and coaxing out the very best of each component.

3.) The man’s a world-class, classically trained chef.  Once you’ve learned and studied all the rules, then if you have the expertise and imagination you can play with them.  And Chef James has lots of fun in the kitchen.  He takes a common, old-fashioned recipe, elevates the ingredients and procedure, and turns out an homage to classic Southern fare.

But don’t confuse classic with stuffy.  Chef James may be a dignified executive chef, but from him, you’ll get absolutely no love for swank and pretense.

His take on Eastern NC bbq is a perfect example.  The plate comes with an old-school, pointy-topped vinegar bottle of sauce.  There’s pork, but a perfectly seared and juicy tenderloin.  The cole slaw is a bright yet sweet slaw of spiral cut veg.  Sous Chef Jonathon James’ take on cornbread is a delicious, sweet, zippy corn pudding.

Corn Poblano Pudding

corn puddingCorn Base:

1 Cup Fresh Corn                                                                                             

1 Cup Whole Milk                                                                                             

Caramelize corn in a hot medium sauté pan, deglaze milk reduce by a ¼. Blend on high until smooth but some of the texture of the corn remains

Pudding:

1 ½ Cup Corn base    

1 Poblano Pepper, roasted (charred skin and seeds removed, then diced)

8 Eggs

1 Cup Heavy Cream   

2 Tablespoons Chili Powder 

1 ½ Cups Cheddar Cheese (grated)  

¾ – 1 Cup Corn Muffin Mix (*Debbie here—I would go with something like Jiffy)                                                                                        

Salt & Pepper To Taste

Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly. Preheat oven to 350 degrees with the cast iron vessel you are using to bake pudding in so it is hot when time to bake. Spray vessel well and bake approx.. 15 minutes. Top should bounce to the touch.

There just isn’t enough room in this piece to tell you all about Petey and Debbie’s excellent adventure.  So next week  I’ll write more tales of our night, including the world’s greatest pasta course, how I ate some of each seafood that arrived at our table, and what I did with all those desserts (and no, I didn’t leave Petey for all that sugary bounty—he’s sitting here right next to me).

 

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See?  He’s just fine.

Thanks for your time.

 

Hail to the chef

In 1939, when King George VI and Queen Mary visited the US, President and Mrs. Roosevelt had a picnic for them at Hyde Park and served hot dogs.

People were shocked, but the king and queen loved it.

In 2016 when the pampered and privileged visit Chapel Hill’s Crossroads restaurant in the Carolina Inn, they can roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty and eat roasted peel & eat shrimp; covered with spice and served with green tomato cocktail and comeback sauces.

People are charmed, and everybody loves it.

The surroundings are beautiful and historic, the service is warm but faultless, and the ingredients are top quality and thoughtfully sourced.  But James Clark, executive chef of the Crossroads has no patience for fussy fine dining and the atmosphere it creates.

The Carolina Inn-I kind of expect the Tarleton twins to be lounging on that porch.

I’ve known Chef James since he was hired, about 3 ½ years ago.  When I heard about him, I was very interested in meeting him.  He’s from Elizabeth City, as am I.  And, he attended culinary school at the New England Culinary Institute, in Vermont, which is The Kid’s alma mater.

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The Kid–trying to look demented and done up in NECI gear.

We ultimately met at a reception introducing him as executive chef.  True to Chef, he catered his own wing-ding.  Luckily for every guest in attendance, he catered his own wing-ding.  The first thing he ever fed me was a fluffy, buttery biscuit, and nestled within was a piece of perfectly slow-cooked and rendered pork belly (I stuck one in my pocket, and took it to Petey—who loved it).

Last week he invited Petey and me to the Carolina to celebrate my birthday and sample his new spring menu.  Instead of ordering, I asked the chef if he would choose for us.  Our palates and bellies would be in his talented, capable hands.

Chef divides his menu into “Sharing Plates”, “Small Plates”, and “Large Plates”.  Dishes were set in front of either Petey or me, but we shared everything.

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Clam frites.

The first course was clam frites and his peel & eat shrimp.   The clams were cooked in their own shell and flavored with bacon and fennel.  Also included was a big vessel of fresh-cut fries spiked with tangy yet mellow Carolina Bleu cheese. The shrimp were perfectly cooked, delicious, and messy fun.  They were served with a green tomato cocktail sauce which was developed by his Chef de Cuisine, Jonathan James.

It’s great for all sorts of things.

Green Tomato Cocktail Sauce

Green Tomato Ketchup Base:

green ketchup

4 Cups Green Tomatoes                                                                              

3 Tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce                                                                     

1 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar                                                                          

3 Tablespoons Texas Pete                                                                                          

½ medium sized onion (julienned)                                                                                 

2 Tablespoons garlic (minced)                                                                                  

¼ cup brown Sugar                                                                                       

¼ cup granulated Sugar                                                                                        

2 tablespoons salt                                                                                                       

1 tablespoon pepper                                                                                                                            

½ cup water

Combine all ingredients in medium heavy bottomed pot, bring to a boil reduce to a simmer. Reduce in volume by half. Cool and blend on high until smooth. If the base is not bright you can add a drop or so of green food coloring to bring back the color.

Cocktail Sauce:

green cocktail

3 ½ cups Green Tomato Ketchup Base                                                            

¼-½ cup Horseradish, depending on taste

Juice from 1 lemon

5-8 dashes Texas Pete                                                                                            

Salt & Pepper to taste

Stir ingredients together.  Makes approximately 4 cups.  Store leftovers in the fridge, or place in zip-top bags and freeze flat.

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The peel & eat experience.

Space prohibits me from divulging more about our meal in this column.  But next week is the sequel with another delicious, do-able recipe from the kitchens of the Carolina Crossroads, and the minds of Chef James and his uber-talented staff.

Thanks for your time.