Nathalie Dupree has just published “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking” (Gibbs Smith 2012), an immense compendium of Southern cuisine, which runs 720 pages and contains some 650 recipes. Amazingly, Nathalie writes in her introduction that 300 pages and 100 photographs never saw the light of day. It is a beautifully written book, a collaboration with her former TV show producer, Cynthia Graubart. Its title is an homage to Julia Child who encouraged Ms. Dupree to write and teach the moment the two met at the Cordon Bleu in London in 1971. Several years later, Nathalie took Julia’s advice to heart and first opened her own cooking school 40 miles outside of Atlanta or “midway between Social Circle and Covington, Georgia across from the Tri-County Cattle Auction Barn and Hub Junction”, Nathalie writes. Soon she was lured to Rich’s, Atlanta’s famous and now defunct department store, to teach in their downtown store.
My parents were living in Atlanta at the time. My mother, as anyone who reads Chewing the Fat with any regularity knows, was not an aficionado of the kitchen. Anything but. But one of her dear friends thought it would be great fun to sign up for Nathalie’s cooking classes. I believe it was called “Lunch and Learn” and if there was a glass of wine involved at lunch, I am sure Mother signed up on the dotted line.
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Since these classes coincided with my divorce, leading my mother to declare that I would never eat properly again, for the next several weeks I was bombarded with Nathalie’s advice, second-hand of course. I believe there were also some recipe cards that made their way north. My mother genuinely enjoyed Nathalie’s classes although I am not sure how much of Nathalie’s cuisine made it onto my mother’s dinner plates. Looking through “Mastering the Art”, I came upon one that I do remember well. Jimmy Carter was on his way to the White House and my parents lived very near the Governor’s mansion and had met Rosalynn Carter several times. Carter, you may recall, was a peanut farmer and so, in a burst of newfound pride in her adopted home, my mother made “Quick Creamy Peanut Ginger Soup”. The operative word here is “Quick” as my mother could never get out of the kitchen fast enough. It was delicious and I was glad to see it in the book. A few years later, Nathalie’s first cookbook was under the Christmas Tree: “Let’s Entertain” was in my library from then until now. Not too long after that “Cooking Across the South” appeared. But what I really celebrated was when Nathalie herself came into my living room in the form of a wonderful series “New Southern Cooking” on Public Television. I felt I knew her and to this day, I still feel I do, although our current acquaintance is through Facebook!
So why, you may wonder, of all the recipes in the entire “Mastering” book did I end up first with one that’s surely not as southern as Shrimp and Grits or Hopping John or Pimento Cheese or Macaroni Pie? The answer is quite simple. I love lemon chicken. I love the dark meat of chicken. I love one pot cooking. So this recipe checked all those boxes. Recently, I had none-too-successfully attempted Chicken Picata. Using those overworked skinless boneless Chicken breasts yet again, the dish had rubber stamped all over it. Despite its lemon-y sauce, what I made was not up to snuff. My quest for a great lemon chicken continued until I found this recipe in Nathalie’s arsenal. It specifically calls for dark meat pieces of chicken, drumsticks or thighs. While there are leg men and breast men, I am decidedly a thigh man. I love the richness of the meat, how forgiving it is in terms of timing, and how easy it is to prepare. This recipe is no exception. The thighs are deeply browned, the tiny fingerling potatoes and cloves of garlic are tucked around then where they roast together. The juice of one whole lemon and its zest brighten the simple chicken broth sauce. Finally after all of about 45 minutes cooking time, the baby spinach is added where its steams briefly and takes this dish into the Pantheon of one dish wonders. It’s awfully good and perfect for this season when you’ve got a lot on your plate besides cooking. Here’s the recipe with a deep bow in the direction of Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart.
** I used 1 lb of Teeny Tiny Potatoes from Trader Joe’s. They were small enough that I felt no urge to cut them into halves as the recipe states.
With a paper towel, dry chicken. In a large heavy skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add chicken, skin side down, and cook until well browned, approximately 5 minutes. Using tongs, turn chicken. Reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until other side is brown, approximately 3 minutes. Pour off excess fat.