Books appear to cram every inch of wall space in cookbook author Cynthia Graubart’s Sandy Springs home. Included in that collection are more than 4,000 cookbooks. They fill her home office and living room. Graubart uses these for inspiration, to learn others techniques and for research.
While she already may be able to call herself an author, a cook, an instructor, a mother, and a James Beard award recipient, Graubart now can consider herself an authority on a food the world knows and loves: chicken.
This household mainstay held a special place in her heart growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., she says. In the introduction to her newest cookbook, “Chicken,” part of the “Savor the South” cookbook series published by University of North Carolina Press, she recalls discovering the differences in her country-cook grandmother’s fried chicken and her other grandmother’s luncheon chicken specialties.
Graubart says her interest in food stemmed from experimentation and no formal training. “The real nucleus of my passion was self-driven,” Graubart said.
“My mother was not a good cook. She had limited cooking skills, and I would come home from school with a pound of ground meat thawing on the counter, and that was my signal to turn it into something for dinner— usually a meatloaf or spaghetti.”
During her college years at the University of Georgia, the passion amplified when she was introduced to new flavors and foods and cooked for her friends. Upon graduating with a degree in journalism, Graubart went on to be an independent television producer at Georgia Public Television.
In 1985, she helped get on the air a cooking show starring chef Nathalie Dupree. “New Southern Cooking” was the first nationally syndicated program to come out of the state of Georgia. It also was where Graubart really started to learn about cooking.
“I never knew that there was a technique to cooking,” said Graubart. “I thought, oh great, I don’t have to be a bad cook; there is a technique to this I can learn!”
With two grown children, Graubart collaborated with Dupree on the James Beard Award-winning cookbook “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,” published in 2012.
“The challenge for writing recipes is writing a recipe as fool-proof as possible, so it can be duplicated by almost any cook in their own home,” she said. “I keep in mind the challenges that all home cooks have such as time, availability of ingredients.”
The recipes in “Chicken” work for every occasion, with seven dedicated to mastering the Georgian mainstay of fried chicken, or what Graubart referred to as her “ode to Georgia.” All 53 of the book’s recipes were created and tested in her Sandy Springs home, in a basic kitchen. “I’m a home cook, writing for home cooks,” she said.
Her cookbook provides recipes for everyday dishes and holiday roasts and explores subjects as varied as the history of the chicken to consumer information about the many ways to prepare it. “I wanted to introduce people to the many techniques of making chicken,” Graubart said.
She sees her audience as two main groups of readers: the new cook trying to figure out life in the kitchen and those who don’t have time to cook and want to try new things in the kitchen.
She says her favorite everyday recipe is “Sheet Pan Chicken Thighs and Sweet Potatoes” because it involves tossing everything onto a sheet pan. She also pointed out the “Country Captain” recipe, a curry dish that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would eat when he visited Georgia.
For the holiday season, Graubart suggested more people experiment more with fennel, and to add chicken thighs with fennel and lemon to our celebratory menus.
“I give a lot of thought to special-occasion meals. I want the food to be approachable and familiar, and as unforgettable as I can possibly make it,” Graubart said. “For the winter holidays, it’s usually a beef tenderloin and a leg of lamb, but I will also cook chicken.”
At home, those holiday meals can include from six to 30 guests. But on a typical morning when both Graubart and her husband Cliff, owner of The Old New York Bookshop, are home together, they have established a routine that divides the kitchen labors.
“Cliff is the master of breakfast,” said Graubart, praising his scrambled eggs.
Graubart, her writing career in high gear, is always working on her next project. While keeping up her speaking engagements and cooking demonstrations, Graubart has two more cookbooks in the works.
One offers recipes for Jewish interfaith families and particularly highlights holiday foods. She also is researching the history of community cookbooks for a book honoring the causes and important cultural contributions these books have made in Georgia
“I don’t want them to go unnoticed or unappreciated in history,” she said. “There is so much we can learn about what people were eating across the decade, and I have thoroughly loved getting involved with the research.”
“Chicken: A Savor the South Cookbook” (UNC Press, hardcover, $20) is available now at local retailers and Amazon.
A Recipe from “Chicken”
Chicken Thighs with Fennel and Lemon
“There are practically no words to describe this dish,” wrote Cynthia Graubart in her cookbook. “The kitchen while it bakes is heavenly.”
Makes 6-8 servings
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons whole-grain mustard
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
1 tablespoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
2 fennel bulbs, cut into 6 or 8 wedges each
8 bone-in, skin-on thighs
2 tablespoons light or dark brown sugar
½ cup dry white wine
2 lemons, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fennel fronds, optional
Combine the lemon juice, mustard, tarragon, fennel seed, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Slowly whisk in the oil to emulsify the marinade. Transfer the marinade to a large resealable plastic bag. Add the fennel and chicken thighs, seal the bag, and turn to coat with the marinade. Refrigerator for at least 1 hour or overnight.
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350°. Transfer the chicken to one or two large, shallow baking dishes or pans so the chicken rests in a single layer. Scatter the fennel wedges around the chicken. Pour the excess marinade evenly over the chicken.
Stir together the sugar and wine in a small bowl and pour the mixture over the chicken. Arrange the lemon slices around the pan. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until the thickest part of a chicken thigh reaches 175° on an instant-read thermometer. Transfer the chicken and fennel to a serving platter. Tent with foil to keep warm. Pour the sauce from the baking dish(es) into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the sauce is reduced in volume by about half; pour it over the chicken. Top the ﬁnished dish with fennel fronds, if using, and serve hot.
Serve with rice or crusty bread, for dipping.