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Marc's Chicken Salad with Peach Mayonnaise and Spiced Pecans

Folks in the Delta cannot get enough chicken salad. Rare is the lunch menu that doesn't offer it the classic way-plenty of real mayo (no Miracle Whip!), chopped celery, at least a touch of onion, and more often that not, a dollop or two of sweet pickle relish. Where the recipe goes from there varies a bit from one place to the next, with all the cooks boasting that theirs is the best.

Charlotte Skelton built her chicken salad reputation at A la Carte Alley, her first restaurant in downtown Cleveland. After she sold the restaurant in 2006 she continued to make her chicken salad for catering stints and later at Crave, her second restaurant venture. Her son, Marc Walden, a classically trained chef who now owns restaurants in Mobile, contributed his version of chicken salad, using the traditional methods his mother taught him as a starting point. He accentuates the southern flavors by adding dried peached and chopped, spiced pecans—a Delta classic in and of itself for which there a thousand variations.

"Marc originally used smoked chicken breasts for this recipe, but when we opened Crave we couldn't get our smoker to work," Skelton said. "We then tried it using the white meat of rotisserie chicken. It was excellent like that. We haven't been doing as many rotisserie chickens right now, so we have been poaching the breasts." I tried this recipe with smoked chicken, and it was a sensational match with the peach mayonnaise.

Ingredients
Poached Chicken:
6 pounds skinless, bone-in chicken breast halves
1 carrot, halved
1 celery stalk, halved
1 medium onion, quartered
Handful of parsley sprigs
1 tablespoon seasoned salt
2 teaspoons peppercorns
10 to 12 cups water

Makes 8 cups shredded or cubed chicken.

Spiced Pecans:
1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon chili powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons butter
1 pound pecan halves

Makes 1 pound.

Chicken Salad:
1 1/2 cups mayonnaise (preferably Duke's)
1/2 cup fresh peach puree (from 1 or 2 peaches)
2 1/2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3/4 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
8 cups shredded poached chicken breasts (recipe follows), smoked chicken, or rotisserie chicken
3/4 cup chopped red onion
1/2 cup diced dried peached or apricots
1/2 cup Spiced Pecans (recipe follows)
1 to 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

Instructions
1. Poach the chicken: In a large saucepan, combine the chicken breasts, carrot, celery, onion, parsley sprigs, seasoned salt, and peppercorns. Cover with water and bring just to a boil. Reduce the heat to very low and cover. Poach the chicken until just cooked through, 20 to 30 minutes.

2. While the chicken is still warm, pull the meat from the bones and shred it into bite-sized pieces. Discard the bones. If desired, strain the poaching liquid and store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months.

3. Spice the pecans: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, stir together the brown sugar, chili powder, cumin, curry powder, and cayenne. Put the butter on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the oven to melt. Remove the pan from the oven. Pour the pecans onto the pan, sprinkle them into the mix, and toss to coat.

4. Spread the pecans in a single layer and bake until the nuts are fragrant, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week or freeze for longer storage.

5. Make the chicken salad: In a medium bowl, stir together the mayonnaise and peach puree. Stir in the honey, sugar, Dijon mustard, and garlic. In a large bowl, stir together the chicken, onion, dried peaches, and Spiced Pecans. Stir in the mayonnaise mixture. Fold in the parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and chill before serving.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Recipe from Susan Puckett's new cookbook, Eat Drink Delta, which Teresa Weaver reviewed in our February issue. Pictured with a tomato aspic recipe also featured in the cookbook.