Interview: Kelly Alexander on Peaches

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Peaches: a SAVOR THE SOUTH(R) cookbook by Kelly AlexanderWhether you swear by peaches from Georgia or from South Carolina, there’s no doubt that the fruit is sacred to southerners. From the moment the first mouthwatering Elberta variety was grafted in the 1870s, the peach has been an icon of summertime and a powerful symbol of the South’s bounty. Peaches: a SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook showcases the sweet richness of this signature fruit. Native Atlantan and award-winning food writer Kelly Alexander explores the fruit’s history, offers advice for selecting, storing, and cooking, and reflects on the place of peaches in southern identity. Peaches includes 45 recipes ranging from classic desserts to internationally inspired preparations.

In the following interview, Alexander gives the Georgia-native scoop on how to take this popular fruit from summer to winter and sweet to savory.

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Q:  Of all the subjects available for the SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook series, why did you choose peaches?

A:  I am from Georgia. To me, a peach was the most common, ubiquitous thing in the world . . . ’til I moved away from home, first to go to school in Chicago, and then to work in New York City. It was then that I realized how much a part of my “food memory bank” they take up. When I heard about the SAVOR THE SOUTH® series, I not only wanted in—as a writer on food from the South, why wouldn’t I?—but I wanted to write one book and one book only: Peaches. Simply put, I am built of peaches.

Q:  In your introduction, you describe the perfect peach. Is there any recipe that can make this tree-ripened, juice-filled, bruise-free beauty taste better?

A:  The single best way to eat a peach is to find one that is very, very ripe and then to bring it into the house, lean over the kitchen sink, and dig your teeth in. There is no better preparation, no better method, or greater recipe for deliciousness than that. The second best is peach pie, hot out of the oven, gooey-sticky, sweet-tart, with some vanilla ice cream melting into it.

Q:  California can claim half of the national peach crop and two of the most world-renowned peach varieties come from France. Why is it that this fuzzy fruit is associated with the South and specifically Georgia?

Kelly Alexander, author of Peaches: a SAVOR THE SOUTH cookbook(R)A:  Peaches will be eternally associated with the state of Georgia not only because they’ve been growing there for hundreds of years but also because of one specific variety, the Elberta, which was for a very, very long time the most popular and superior peach one could find in the United States and, arguably, the world. Things have changed now; we Americans plant lots of different kinds of peaches, but Georgia’s reputation as the peach capital lives on . . . just ask anyone of us from Georgia and we’ll tell you all about it!

Q:  What fun peach fact will your readers find the most surprising?

A:  That peaches aren’t just for dessert! Peaches are considered sweet dessert fruits, but the truth is that their flavor is much more complex than it gets credit for and they can marry beautifully with savory preparations. I’d like readers to be pleasantly surprised by how many “other” uses for peaches there are than “just” desserts. I’d like readers to be inspired to experiment with cooking with and eating peaches in more unusual and interesting ways.

Also this: More than 50 streets in Atlanta have “peach” in their name. My favorite is “Peachtree Battle Road” where my synagogue is; it’s one of the oldest congregations in the South, and I cannot tell you how many afternoons I attempted to run away from Hebrew school, looked up at the road sign “Peachtree Battle Road,” and dreamt of eating peaches.

Also this: A peach only has 38 calories! You almost burn more calories eating it, like celery, but it tastes so much better. It’s the world’s best snack, a peach.

Q:  You are a peach-state native. Have most of your recipes come from Georgia or were some from your time in other Southern states and even New York City?

A:  When I think about Georgia peaches I think about eating them ripe’n’raw. When I think about cooking peaches and recipes using them, I think almost entirely about my years working for food magazines—Food & Wine, where I had my first job, and, most importantly, Saveur, where I had my best job. I was so inspired by the chefs in the test kitchens of those places, particularly by Melissa Hamilton at Saveur who has gone on to found her own publishing company, called Canal House. That’s where I learned how to develop recipes, how to think creatively about pairing flavors, and how to perfect a tried-and-true formula (like for, say, peach pie). But like all writers, the thing I’m most inspired by is my own life! My travels in Switzerland, for example, where I ate the world’s best muesli in a hotel dining room—it had peaches in it, and I had to figure out how to make my own version.

Q:  Can you tell us about some of your signature dishes from the book?

A:  I like rustic, easy, no-fuss, old-fashioned American food the very best: that’s what I cook for my family, that’s the food I crave. My favorite recipe in the book is the Roasted Chicken with Peaches and Rosemary. My grandmother made roasted chickens all the time, nearly every Friday night, when I was growing up, and so this is a sentimental favorite. The idea of putting a peach in its cavity, and of goosing the aroma with rosemary, was all mine. So the roasted chicken recipe represents a lot to me: where I came from, and the modern cook I’ve become. And it’s delicious. I also cannot get enough of the Sour Cream Peach Cake. It’s really moist, it’s really easy to make, and it looks—with its layer of peaches in the middle—much more complicated to produce than it is. Bonus for impressing friends and neighbors!

Q:  Some recipes are specific to white peaches. Did you include any of these in your cookbook? Why is there a need to specify?

A:  White peaches are lower in acidity than yellow ones, and that’s an important thing to know if you’re choosing peaches for recipes. In general, I prefer not to specify a type of peach because I don’t want my readers to find a single reason to think a recipe is too complicated or too specific to try. White peaches are a bit sweeter and that’s why you see “white peach daiquiri” recipes, for instance. The White Peach Margarita recipe I developed is my interpretation of that phenomenon, but, I think, better: It makes a very icy, refreshing summer drink.

Q:  In your introduction, you talk about the best way to peel a peach. Do you prefer to cook with peeled or unpeeled peaches? What difference would it make in some of the recipes?

A:  I prefer to cook with unpeeled peaches in the same way that I prefer mashed potatoes with the skin on; this is entirely a matter of personal taste. If you like chunky, rustic textures like I do, don’t bother peeling your peaches. That said, if you’re cooking for company and prefer a more refined presentation, as even I sometimes do, it’s best to peel the fruit. Peeling a peach gives a dish a more consistently smooth texture no matter what it is.

Q:  Peaches are usually associated with sweet dishes like desserts. What are some of the savory recipes you include in your book and how do they utilize the unique composition of the peach?

A:  Peaches are all about aroma and fragrance and are incredibly subtle when you get down to it. They add a hint of something to a dish, not a wallop. That’s why they’re such a nice addition to things like wild rice salad and grilled chicken dishes. They also make a marvelous ingredient for chutneys and sauces.

Q:  Peaches are typically a summer fruit. Do you have any secrets for getting that fresh peach flavor in your recipes even in the winter?

A:  I did not grow up in a family who preserved or canned, and I have learned how to do those things as an adult. I highly recommend preserving peaches according to the great southern chef April McGreger’s method, which I included in this book. I am inspired by McGreger’s dedication to preserving old-fashioned southern foodways like preserving, and by preserving peaches you can add a note of peach into winter-time dishes. A tablespoon stirred into a savory lamb stew would be just perfect on a cold January evening, for instance.

Q:  How do you handle a bumper crop of peaches?

A:  The best problem you could have in your life would be to have too many peaches. If you have too many, you don’t have enough friends. Honestly, the best thing I could say to do with a bumper crop of peaches is to have a giant ice cream sundae party after a barbecue and invite everyone you know to help you eat them all.

Q:  You describe your cookbook as user friendly. What recipe would you recommend for a peach enthusiast, but beginner chef?

A:  The Peach-Glazed Ham is a crowd pleaser if ever there was one: It makes a very impressive looking dish, the kind that can feed a big group for a buffet, and it requires almost no expertise to prepare. For people just learning how to entertain at home, for the ones who are having their future in-laws over for the first time or who are throwing their first cocktail parties, you cannot beat this easy recipe.

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Kelly Alexander is author of Peaches: a SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, and O: The Oprah Magazine. She is co-author of the New York Times best-selling barbecue cookbook Smokin’ with Myron Mixon. She lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @howamericaeats, and keep up with recipes, events, and more on the Savor the South Facebook page.

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