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.”
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.
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.