This Wednesday, what was fleetingly Gus' Lunch Box will officially become Sqirl (pronounced "squirrel"), where you can buy over 15 varieties of owner Jessica Koslow's small-batch jams and preserves. Produced in custom-made copper jam pans, they come in dreamy flavors like strawberry and thyme, Elberta peach with lemon verbena, raspberry and lavender, and tomato and coriander. Bring in your own jar and for a price you'll be able to fill it with Koslow's sauerkraut or her crunchy, fantastically sour pickles, which taste of dill, juniper berries and the best deli you went to as a kid. The late Amy Pressman's and Bill Chait's Short Order will serve Sqirl pickles and sauerkraut, while Short Cake will sell her preserves.
If you've been yearning to overcome your fear of canning, you're in luck: On the weekends, Sqirl turns itself into a pickle and preserve university. Koslow's first class? A 101 on making your own pectin, Gravenstein apple butter and preserving seasonal fruits.
We checked in with Koslow, who was busily prepping for her shop's opening but happy to chat about her oddball career (which includes stints as an ice skater and an American Idol producer), how she ended up as a preserve queen and why vinegar is a no-no among artisanal picklers.
Squid Ink: You make a Blenheim apricot preserve that tastes exactly like a tangy fruit roll, circa 1980. Where do your ideas come from? Are they born of combinations you like or are they resurrected from early memories?
Jessica Koslow: Part is memory. The other part is, like, a snapshot. Some things are so ingrained in my memory, like the flavor of a Creamsicle when I was growing up. An ice cream truck would come through my neighborhood and my mom would allow me a treat on Friday. That was such a great flavor for me. I make a marmalade with vanilla bean and Moro blood orange, and it tastes just like a Creamsicle. Some of the [flavors] are so memory-based, I can actually see them. The other side of it is to me, a beautiful snapshot of the season. Blenheim apricots come from Force Field farms, the only farmer who dry farms that variety in California.
SI: Let's hear more about your Creamsicle-buying youth. Where did you grow up?
JK: In Long Beach on Country Club Drive, the street where Ferris Bueller's Day Off was filmed. I was a figure skater and I spent my youth hunkered down at the [ice] rink.
SI: Flashback to images of a young Jessica Koslow perfecting her toe jumps, salchows and lutzes and in between eating great pickles.
JK: There was this one Jewish deli we used to go to all the time, Katella Deli [in Los Alamitos]. Every single holiday and occasion happened there. The thing was, their pickles were too crunchy almost... you could tell the pickles were either soaked in alum or had the calcium chloride.
SI: Feh. Describe your journey from the ersatz crunchy pickle to the Sqirl pickle, which we think is exquisite and wholly original.
JK: I've always been interested in letting whatever I'm working with have integrity. I don't like to have [my pickles] be overpowered by a brine. I want there to be an understanding that this product manifested itself. I think that's with everything I do.
SI: You studied economics at Brandeis and got your master's degree from Georgetown University. How did you end up majoring in jam and pickles?
JK: I'd moved to Atlanta, and one night I went to a restaurant called Bacchanalia and had this incredible meal, so I e-mailed [chef-owner] Annie Quatrano. A day later, I started working. She put me in a situation of sink or swim, and I stayed there for a year and worked the line, worked pastry. That's how I got my start.
SI: Then what happened?
JK: Then I moved to New York and became a producer for American Idol.
SI: Get out. There's a terrible joke somewhere in here about Kellie Pickler, but I'm not sure what it is. Instead, what season did you start?
JK: It was 2006. David Cook, David Archuelta. I had a big crush on David Cook, I am not going to lie. I got a transfer to move out here for Idol. Even while I was doing all this, I was just cooking so much. There was a time where I was doing night shifts at Village Bakery and then going to work just because I wanted to bake.
SI: Everything you make has to do with what's great and in season. What's around the corner?
JK: [She gasps.] So much! I will be doing an apple and shiso jelly, a spiced pear butter, a persimmon butter. We're definitely in the spiced butter, hearty, fall season at the moment.
SI: Who was Yoda of pickles to your Luke?
JK: Annie Quatrano was really the one who championed me to do this. I also worked at Abattoir, her charcuterie-based restaurant in Atlanta. We'd get our pigs in full, they'd be turned into charcuterie, and we needed pickles to accompany that. So I started doing green beans and all sorts of pickles, pickled green tomatoes and it started from there. When I moved back here, Ernest Miller, who runs the Farmer's Kitchen, which is part of See-LA and the Hollywood Farmer's Market and is a huge advocate for all sorts of preservation, he brought back the Master Food Preserver Program, which had been dormant in Los Angeles for the past 10 years. After working with him, it was like a combination of working with those two and me forging my own path, figuring out my direction.