Food & Drink

Three Modern Twists on Southern Preserves

Recipes for saving and savoring harvest leftovers—including the perfect garnish for an Old-Fashioned

Photo: Courtesy of Freight House

Chef Sara Bradley grew up eating her grandmother’s pickled corn by the jarful. “My parents would have to stop me because I’d give myself a bellyache,” says Bradley, who runs Freight House restaurant in Paducah, Kentucky. “My grandmother was one of thirteen, and I remember how she and all her sisters would also make enormous amounts of apple butter. Not only was canning and preserving about saving food, but it was a communal thing. It’s about utilizing a crop and letting everyone take some home.”

photo: Courtesy of Freight House
Sara Bradley.

During quarantine, Bradley put her grandmother’s tradition into practice, preserving the ingredients she had in her pantry, scads of blueberries the restaurant had on hand, and the mezcal she had in her home bar. “Blueberries love smoke,” she says. “They have enough sweetness to pair nicely with it.” She used the resulting jam to spice up her homemade margaritas and in an earl grey and cilantro-tinged cocktail at Freight House’s bar. Spiced and preserved fruit can add a kick to cheesecake or key lime pie and can even top a cheeseburger, she says. 

The first recipe—with or without the liquor—can act as a basic starter recipe for just about any fruit found during a freezer cleanout, Bradley says, such as citrus, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries. “This is a great way for a home cook to think…just go in your fridge and see what’s there,” Bradley says. Another smoky-sweet concoction Bradley created: smoked orange marmalade, made by smoking citrus over hickory wood chips. “This makes an excellent Old- Fashioned,” she says.

AuCo Lai.

Up the Ohio River, AuCo Lai, sous chef at the new Barn8 Restaurant and Bar at Hermitage Farm shares the sentiment. “Having lived in several rural places throughout Kentucky, I’ve developed a huge appreciation for canning, jamming, and preserving,” Lai says. Working with produce from the seven-hundred-acre farmstead outside of Louisville, Lai wanted to utilize the tons of sweet potatoes grown on-site. Although her creation—sweet potato jelly—works with any kind of sweet potato, Lai began with the Vardaman variety. “It was so sugary, clean, light, and floral,” she says. “The first time I made the jelly, I just slapped it on toast, and it was delicious, but you can do anything with it.” She recommends making thumbprint cookies or cake filling or serving it alongside cheese and prosciutto on a charcuterie board.

Sara Bradley’s Blueberry Mezcal Jam

A sweet and smoky way to savor the taste of summer


    • 1 cup blueberries (or other fruit)

    • ½ cup sugar

    • 1 tbsp. water

    • 2 tbsp. Xicaru Silver Mezcal


  1. Cook fruit, sugar, and water on medium heat until thick, about 8 to 10 minutes. Strain to remove skins. Mix mezcal into jam, jar, and refrigerate until use.

Recipe from Sara Badley of Freight House in Paducah, Kentucky

Sara Bradley’s Smoked Orange Marmalade

The perfect addition to a top-notch Old Fashioned


    • 4 lbs. oranges

    • 1 cup Meyer lemon, sliced thin, with pith attached

    • 1 cup lemon, sliced thin, with pith attached

    • 8 cups water

    • 8 cups sugar

    • 1 cup hickory chips


  1. Peel oranges with a peeler, leaving as much pith attached to rind as possible. Slice peels thinly, about ⅛ inch, and set aside. 

  2. Segment the centers of the oranges, keeping only the flesh and juice. Roughly chop and remove seeds.

  3. Mix orange peel, orange segments, and 2 cups of sugar in a non-reactive metal container. 

  4. If using a pit, smoke over hickory for 1 to 2 hours at 250 degrees. If using an electric smoker, smoke oranges and sugar twice, using ½ cup of chips each time, at 250 degrees, for 20 minutes each time. You can also build a smoker on your grill or stovetop.  

  5. While oranges are smoking, slice the lemon and Meyer lemon ⅛ inch thick. Discard seeds.

  6. Mix smoked oranges and juices with lemons, water, and remaining sugar in a large, heavy-bottom pot. Bring to a boil and simmer for 40 to 45 minutes or until fruit has a jelly-like consistency. 

  7. Cool and store in airtight container. It will keep for months in the fridge.

Recipe from Sara Bradley of Freight House in Paducah, Kentucky

AuCo Lai’s Sweet Potato Jelly

Upgrade your fall charcuterie boards with this tasty twist on preserves


    • 1–2 medium sweet potatoes, any variety

    • 1 lemon

    • 2 packets pectin

    • 3 cups sugar


  1. Peel and cube sweet potatoes and add to a large pot. Add just enough water to cover.

  2. Zest the lemon and set the zest aside. Squeeze the lemon juice into the pot and add pectin and sugar. Stir until pectin is dissolved. Bring to a simmer and cook until sweet potatoes are tender, about 45 minutes to an hour. 

  3. Add lemon zest and bring the pot back to a rolling boil. Once it reaches a boil, remove it from heat. The sweet potatoes should still be in cubes. Pour into a sterile mason jar and follow safe canning procedures or refrigerate. 

Recipe from AuCo Lai of Barn8 Restaurant and Bar

Read more: Three Modern Twists on Southern Preserves