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Southern peaches — the pick of the summer

Jennifer King Ferreira • Jul 24, 2019 at 11:00 AM

Peaches bring back sweet summer memories — the taste, the smell, the sunrise colors point toward a perfect fruit. Nothing at all compares to the peaches grown in the deep South — the early clings and the later freestones. South Carolina and Georgia get the votes for the sweetest and juiciest and are the South’s biggest producers. It is no wonder that Southern growers have always declared July as “Peach Month,” and many swear you should wait until after the 4th of July to let the peach juice run off your chin. I have one persnickety South Carolina friend who says he will never buy peaches in a grocery store and never a California peach. He purchases volumes of Southern peaches during mid-summer and freezes them in various batches — sliced and sugared, pureed and even blanched whole fruits with skin on. (I once tried it and it works). When his supply runs out, he simply suffers until peach harvest time rolls around.

Traveling to Carolina beaches always meant beginning and ending our vacation with stops at peach stands. Naturally, my parents hovered over each basket making sure they were getting a flawless bushel, filled with perfect fragrance and ripeness. At the beach, we usually consumed the fresh peaches clothed in their unblemished glory and demonstrated our lack of peach control by finishing up the bushel by week’s end. Going home was a different matter altogether. We would arrive sunburned and weary from a week away, but with a new bushel to turn into comforting peach crumbles and cobblers and jelly jars brimming with jams and conserves. My father would bring out the crank ice cream maker and whip up a batch or two of his favorite peach ice cream, straight from the popular Helen Corbett Cookbook. It was mandatory that we each take our turn churning away as he added layers of rock salt and ice. As much as we complained, we kept our sights and taste buds trained on the end result.

To this day, I maintain this “peach stand mentality.” Just last month, I had to stop and scrutinize a couple of peach stands on a visit to my son in Greenville, S.C. I couldn’t resist taking him a bag full of Greer, S.C., peaches to share with his “not Southern” roommates. When I asked him how they liked them, he admitted that “they didn’t have a chance.” He scarfed them all down by himself.

It’s not a wonder to me that the peach brought forth the adjective peachy, which is used to describe anything that is good, sweet, magnificent in color — perfect in every way. Supposedly, it was coined by California DJ Jim Hawthorne in 1948, made popular again in the movie “Grease” and is still used today. So the next time you hear someone exclaim that “life is peachy” or the sunset is lighting up the sky “like a peach” or that someone has a peaches and cream complexion, you will know exactly from whence these phrases came! Perhaps, it will remind you that it is Peach Month in the South and time to search for this superior fruit. And, don’t forget to have that napkin ready when you take your first bite!

While traveling in the Alsatian region of France, I had the pleasure of experiencing the traditional French dessert clafouti. This French comfort food is made from a thin flan-like batter, usually baked with cherries. A deliciously firm custard surrounds the fruit. I have made it several times and found that peaches are a perfect fruit for this dish. Julia Child loved clafouti and had her own spin on the recipe. My recipe is simple, and the batter can be made in the blender.

Peach and Blackberry Clafouti

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

3 large eggs

1 cup of whole milk

½ cup half and half

1/3 cup brown sugar, packed

½ tsp of vanilla extract

¼ tsp ground cinnamon (optional)

1/4 cup granulated sugar

2/3 cup all-purpose flour

2 ripe peaches, cut into ¼ inch slices

1 cup blackberries

butter

Add egg, milk, half and half, brown sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and salt to blender and blend together in short pulses. Add flour and blend until smooth, about 1 minute. Put batter in refrigerator for 30 minutes to rest.

Butter and lightly sugar 9”-10” ceramic or glass quiche pan

Put half of peaches and blackberries in bottom of dish

Pour in half of the batter and sprinkle with other half of granulated sugar

Pour in second half of batter and arrange rest of peaches and berries on top. Pressing slightly into batter

Bake 45-55 minutes until top is slightly browned and custard is set.

Cool slightly and sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired

Serve warm — right out of pan!

A couple of years ago, I discovered that grills just aren’t for meat and veggies anymore and that grilling fruit can result in creative and delicious recipes. The Southern peach is a perfect example. Take about 8 peaches, remove the pit, brush them lightly with olive or coconut oil, and plop them on the grill for about 2 minutes on each side. Use them for a variety of dishes — from appetizers to desserts. Honey and balsamic vinegar can also be brushed on for a sweeter outcome.

If you need a quick summer appetizer or a quick salad, these are two of my favorites:

Bruschetta with Grilled Peaches

Thinly slice French baguette, brush with olive oil and toast in 350 oven for about 10 minutes

Spread toasted pieces with goat cheese

Wrap thin slice of grilled peach and a sprig of fresh basil in thin strip of prosciutto ham and place on top of each toast

Drizzle with white balsamic vinegar if desired

Simple and tasty!

Grilled Peach and Arugula Salad

4 grilled peaches cut in thin slices

6 cups fresh arugula

4 ounces gorgonzola (or feta if you prefer)

1 cucumber peeled and thin sliced

1 cup cherry tomatoes, cut in half

1/2 cup toasted pecans

½ cup red onion thinly sliced

Combine all above ingredients except peaches and drizzle with preferred amount of dressing.

Plate and top with grilled peach pieces

Optional: Also delicious with grilled chicken or shrimp for main dish salad

Simple dressing:

1/2 cup olive oil

2 tbsp vinegar

1 tbsp lime or lemon juice

1 tsp prepared Dijon mustard

1 tsp local honey

Salt and pepper to taste

Place all ingredients in ball jar and shake until thoroughly blended.

Chef Charles Parker is all about food and can probably tell you something about every farm in Southwest Virginia. His current position at the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center and Market Place, (formerly Heartwood in Abingdon) has him scurrying about over hills and valleys to provide cooking demos and chef talks at farmers markets and special fundraisers. He participates weekly in special events at farms and vineyards throughout the area and is a huge promotor of shopping and eating local! Parker, a two-time winner at the last Great Winter Soup Cook-off, wowed the attendees with his soup in the live competition and went on to win first place in the professional group. He knows how to take simple ingredients and turn them into something special!

He has just been given the go-ahead to begin offering cooking classes in the exploratory kitchen at the Cultural Center and will be taking over the name of the popular Cooking Along the Crooked Road classes that were a significant part of the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center’s enrichment offerings for many years and sadly discontinued last year. Using his own new format, Parker will begin offering monthly cooking demos and hands-on classes which will spotlight area chefs and culinary experts. He has several special events planned during the coming weeks, including a blackberry jam canning class, and will be spotlighted at a special event at the Abingdon Farmers Market on Aug. 3, where he will be doing a solo “Chopped” competition using secret ingredients chosen from the market vendors. On Aug. 4 you can catch him at the Highlands Festival Finale Dinner, where he will be one of the six featured chefs.

Charles keeps it simple and fresh and has shared his favorite peach salsa recipe. He says this versatile salsa can be used in lieu of your “regular salsa,” but he loves to pair it with grilled salmon, pan-seared tuna or roasted pork tenderloin. The beautiful colors and flavor are sure to be a hit!

Chef Charles’ Summer Peach Salsa

2 cups RIPE, local peaches, diced (6-8 peaches) 

1 cup fresh, local tomato, diced (1 large or 2 medium) 

1 tablespoon local hot pepper of your choice (I used jalapeno), minced (or very fine dice) 

1 teaspoon chipotle pepper (optional), minced 

1 teaspoon fresh, local banana pepper 

¼ cup yellow or red bell pepper 

¼ cup local red onion, diced 

½ teaspoon chili powder (ancho chili powder is my favorite for this salsa) 

¼ teaspoon cumin powder 

1 tablespoon brown sugar 

1 tablespoon local cilantro, coarsely chopped 

Juice from 1 lime

Mix all ingredients together well.

*I love “spicy” foods so if this recipe is too “hot” for your taste, you can easily adjust some of the ingredients; ie. less hot pepper, omit the chipotle pepper — or you can increase the “heat” by adding more hot pepper (or using HOT PEPPERS like ghost pepper or Carolina reaper; and if you do, you are a brave soul!)

**You can enjoy this salsa right away, but if you give it some time for all the ingredients to get to know each other, then the flavors will be enhanced tenfold! I like to cover the salsa, after it has been prepared, and let them “chill” in the refrigerator for 3-4 hours or even overnight.

Jennifer King Ferreira grew up in Kingsport, where she received her first cooking experiences from her grandmother, Genevieve Shivell. She is the past owner of the Abingdon General Store and Plum Alley Eatery, a gourmet store and restaurant in Abingdon, Va., and is the former director of the Cooking Along the Crooked Road Culinary Program.

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