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.
SI: Since you started you have no doubt pickled everything. What resists pickling?
JK: Lettuce. [She laughs.]
SI: You tried to pickle lettuce?
JK: [She laughs again.] You want to try everything, right? But it just wilts. Not all beans work for pickling. Green beans and haricot vert are amazing. But the wide, flat beans are not good for pickling because the skin has a lot of water in it.
SI: When it comes to dill pickles, explain why, in certain circles, vinegar is considered a real eyebrow raiser.
JK: When you're using a salt brine, lacto-fermenting, what you're doing is letting the pickle ferment itself naturally. It's about what the pickles can do themselves. The way cucumbers, especially, had been pickled traditionally is by a salt brine, but it takes a little bit more time. You have to let them ferment themselves naturally. With vinegar, you're basically creating a brine that the pickle sits in and the pickle itself doesn't ferment. The flavor of the actual food is muckied by the vinegar.
SI: You make your own pectin. Why?
JK: When you use pectin from a box, you don't know if it is organic, where it is coming from. Sunkist will get oranges from everywhere then send the rinds to a processing plant, where they are put into water and cooked and distilled and turned into a white powder. To me, when you can do it yourself and you know where it's coming from, that's something I prefer. It will create an end-product that is not quite as firm as the gel that you're used to, when you buy a commercial product, but you can point your finger and know where everything comes from.
SI: How do Sqirl preserves taste different from ones made with commercial pectin?
JK: When you use commercial pectin in order to activate it, you need more sugar. In that commercial pectin, you're required to use additional sugar. If you find a strawberry jam from Trader Joe's, they're using pectin to quicken the process of coagulating whatever is in the pot, so it needs more sugar. What you'll traditionally taste with the use of commercial pectin is a higher sugar content. It will be sweeter and you won't taste the integrity of the fruit.
SI: Sqirl is also an educational space. How do you convince people that canning isn't scary?
JK: Things are scary until you do them, right? When you're doing them with someone who is a Master Food Presever, knows the regulations and can make you understand what you're working with, it isn't quite as scary. I agree, though: The first time I canned something and I looked at that lid and wondered, “Did that lid seal? Am I going to kill someone?” Just as long as you know that you water-bathed for the appropriate amount of time and the seal on the lid is solid, you're good. The best thing I can offer is “Use a thermometer.” If you have a thermometer you'll be able to look at the temperature and make yourself feel comfortable with the fact that you've reached the right temperature.