August 6th, 2013
10:30 AM ET
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August 22 is National Eat a Peach Day, so we're sharing this luscious ode again.

Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Today's contributor, Virginia Willis, is the author of cookbooks "Bon Appétit, Y’all" and "Basic to Brilliant, Y’all." She is a contributing editor to Southern Living and a frequent contributor to Taste of the South. She also wrote Eatocracy's most-commented post of all time.

In this series for the Southern Foodways Alliance, I am examining iconic Southern foods that so completely belong to summer that if you haven’t relished them before Labor Day, you should consider yourself deprived of the entire season. My plan is to share a little history and a few recipes that I hope you will enjoy.

I grew up smack in the middle of peach country in South Georgia. When I was in high school, my school breaks were dictated by the picking season, as many of my classmates were the sons and daughters of farmers.

You have never been hot until you’ve been peach-picking in the middle of a Georgia summer. Rumor has it that hell is cooler. The air is thick and stifling. Gnats and mosquitoes buzz about incessantly. Peach fuzz covers your arms and wrists. The combination is an effective formula for guaranteed misery. But in the end, after turning those bushels of perfectly ripe fruit into jelly, each amber spoonful is more precious than gold.

How did peaches become an iconic Southern summer food? According to the Clemson University Cooperative Extension, peaches originated in China over 3000 years ago. Spanish missionaries brought peaches to the New World in 1571, to what is now known as St. Simons Island, Georgia. History also tells us that Cherokee Indians grew peaches in the mid 1700’s. By the mid- to late 1850s, peaches were shipped by train out of the region. (Was this the beginning of the hard-as-a-rock grocery store peaches?)

Peaches are an important fruit crop in the agricultural economy of both Georgia and South Carolina. Both states have similar soil types and climate and grow many of the same cultivars.

Georgia produces over 85 million pounds of peaches a year. Although Georgia doesn’t grow as many peaches as some other states, including South Carolina and California, it is deservedly known as “The Peach State,” in honor of a farmer in Marshallville who bred the Elberta peach from the seed of a Chinese Cling peach in the late 1800s. The peach industry took off from there, the state was tagged with the flavorful nickname, and the rest is sweet and juicy history.

I’m certainly biased toward Georgia peaches; it seems to me that the red clay soil and hot sun here create a taste like no other. In keeping with the region’s legendary sweet tooth, many Southern recipes can quickly turn the healthful peach into something terribly unvirtuous—though delicious. Recipes are often along the lines of the peach ice cream my grandmother made, laced with eggs and heavy cream that we would churn on the side porch. Two of my favorites are fried peach pies, deep-fried half-moons of biscuit dough filled with sugar and chopped peaches, and peach cobbler, baked in a cast-iron skillet. I also love the more upscale Peach Soufflé.

However, peaches aren’t only for desserts. I find that they pair nicely with savory foods as well. Today I am sharing a sneak peek at a recipe for my next “Y’all” book, titled Lighten Up, Y’all, which will be out in the spring of 2015. (Yes, I know, it takes a long time to write a cookbook.) It’s for Savory Basil Peach Chicken, and it is absolutely delicious.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Basil Peach Chicken Breasts

Serves 4

Peaches and basil are a great flavor combination. What grows together goes together—and both basil and peaches love hot Southern summers. Peeling peaches can be tricky business. Often a serrated peeler can be effective, but if the peaches are too ripe, you simply wind up with a handful of puree. To avoid this, bring a small pot of water to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, fill a bowl with ice water. Then, using a paring knife cut an “X” in the end of the peach. Dip the peach into the boiling water for 15 to 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to the bowl of ice water. The “X” will open slightly and the skin can be removed by gently pulling off with the paring knife.

Starting the chicken on the stovetop and finishing in the oven helps prevent dry, overcooked chicken. The flavorful jus is fresh and clean, much lighter than a flour-thickened gravy. Serve with steamed rice, instant couscous, or quinoa for a simple summer meal.

1 tablespoon expeller pressed canola oil
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
2 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
12 basil leaves, finely chopped, more for garnish
1 cup homemade chicken stock or reduced fat low-sodium chicken broth
4 large peaches, peeled and sliced ¼-inch thick (about 2 cups)
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 350°. Pat the chicken dry on both sides with paper towels. Season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large ovenproof non-stick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the chicken and cook until browned, about 2 minutes per side. Remove to a plate and set aside.

Reduce the heat. Add the shallot and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic to the pan and cook until fragrant, stirring constantly, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the basil, chicken stock, and peaches. Return the chicken to the pan and turn to coat. Transfer to the oven. Bake until the juices run clear when the chicken is pierced with the point of a knife, about 15 minutes.

Read more at the Southern Foodways Alliance's blog

Butter beans and field peas
For the love of tomatoes
Homemade ice cream
Glorious corn
5@5 – Virginia Willis – Southern is a state of mind

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. NYC Fitness Events

    This is why i love this site recipes and knowledge. Who know peaches originated from China, What isn't made in China?

    January 30, 2014 at 12:11 pm |
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    August 24, 2013 at 5:49 am |
  3. aCriticalEye

    Had one this morning. OUTSTANDING !

    August 23, 2013 at 6:53 am |
  4. Lee

    Here in Nashville I frequent the best Farmers Market the state has to offer just south of Nashville. I say the best only because it has the largest group of Tennessee Farmers assembled in one place, including certified organic produce. Peaches have been one of my favorite fruits since growing up in Texas. Later in life I had a free stone peach tree in my front yard that put out some of the sweetest peaches I've ever had. This year we've seen some of the sweetest from peaches from Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama. The Georgia peaches have not been as sweet or good in comparison. I'm guessing that is because of rain, there has been so much rain this summer in the south.
    If you look thru some of the photo's on the farmers market website above you can find some of the farm fresh peaches the farmers bring to market. Nothing better than a local fresh peach that is so sweet and juicy the juice runs down your face when you bite into it. This years crop has been some of the best peaches I've ever consistently had. And I think we still have a few weeks to go with this year bumper peach crops.

    August 23, 2013 at 6:21 am |
  5. Skeptic

    I call my girlfriend "Peach".

    And yes, I do....

    August 22, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
  6. Frank

    I love peach nectar. It's absolutely amazing as long as it's running down LMR's breasts!

    August 22, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
  7. bence

    that hot peach cobbler with a big dip of vanilla ice cream best if it is blue bunny ice cream

    August 22, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
  8. beernpizzalover

    Peach? No way. I'd rather eat something else that starts with a P, has 5 letters – and is just as sweet!

    August 22, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
    • Elfilo

      The reason you shouldn't be eating peaches (unless they are organic) is because EWG, Environmental Working Group studied USDA and FDA findings since 2000 and have put peaches, sadly, on the "Dirty Dozen" list: a list of the fruits and vegetables contaminated with the most toxic pesticides. These pesticides go down to the core, too. Only eat organic peaches, other wise, that sweet peach is cancer candy. This article is irresponsible not to mention it. It must be a commercial from peach grower's associations. Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but truth is always better. Check out the "Dirty Dozen" and the "Clean Fifteen".

      August 22, 2013 at 8:35 pm |
    • Curlee

      Oh geez, I bet you're such a sex god. I bet you really have all the ladies lining up for you. (rolleyes)

      August 24, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
  9. swork1

    All other peaches pale in comparison to Colorado peaches grown on the west slope near Palisade and Grand Junction. My evidence: The 30 or so southerners who have changed their thinking after trying one.

    August 22, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
  10. david

    I dont like California peaches when they hit the market They tastes like cardboard with no flavor

    August 22, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  11. david

    I dont like California peahes when they hit the market They tastes like cardboard with no flavor

    August 22, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
  12. Millions of Peaches

    I'm moving to the country, gonna eat me a lot of peaches.

    August 22, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
  13. luckyponytoo

    Weird...I had a peach for breakfast and I didn't even know about "Peach Day". It was locally grown here in Iowa and it was absolutely delectable.

    August 22, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
  14. (grabs crotch)

    "Ain't that a peach?"

    August 8, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • Cheech Marin, we salute you

      If I understand the reference correctly...

      August 22, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
  15. Edwin

    The Basil Peach Chicken Breast sounds amazing. Thank you for the recipe!

    August 6, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
  16. cali girl

    peach cobbler. yummmm

    August 6, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  17. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    Just bought a load of peaches yesterday. Mmmm-mmm!

    August 6, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
  18. JT

    Makes me want to find some peach juice. I'm not sure if they sell it in stores over here (oddly enough ended up drinking it in Vietnam). You can't throw a rock without hitting a peach stand on the side of road where I live, so if I can't find it in a bottle, I'll just have to find out how to make it myself.

    I like to make fruit chuteny with peaches and cherries. I like how the fruit is soft and adds a nice sweet flavor to balance out the spices.

    August 6, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • Ms. Grammar

      If that's like peach nectar, it's available in cans in most larger grocery stores.

      August 6, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
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