I have a habit (perhaps personality trait?) of becoming vehemently promotional of the things I love. If I find out that you have never seen My So-Called LIfe, I will likely exclaim, "WHAT?!?", take a deep breath, detail all of the reasons why it is the best television show ever created and then generously force the DVD box set upon you. I can talk for hours about the depths of my love for Sufjan Stevens, complete with commentary about why The Age of Adz is his most underrated album. If you live in or travel to Los Angeles, I will implore you to eat at Sqirl; if you aren't in its vicinity, I will direct you to their menu online—attempting to connect you with a sliver of the experience of being there.
Sqirl fills up an unreasonably large portion of my heart. Chances are, if you're appraised to current food/restaurant trends, live in LA, or know me personally, you've heard of it. If you haven't, here's a snapshot: Sqirl is a tiny, bright and booming breakfast and lunch joint on the east side of Los Angeles, which serves up some of the most playful, innovative, fresh and flavorful food I've ever had the pleasure of eating—and possibly being made in America today.
I first heard about Jessica Koslow in 2012, a year after she had started an unusual little jam company called Sqirl (as in, "squirrel away"). As a burgeoning foodie and lifetime creative who was spending my free time making things like rosemary cashew butter from scratch, I was instantaneously compelled by Jessica's seasonal and atypical jams, like blueberry tarragon and strawberry rose geranium. Not long after Sqirl got its legs, Jessica expanded it into a simple breakfast spot for people to gather and enjoy her beguiling jam in the best way possible: on toast. But not just any toast. A cartoonish-ly thick slice of locally made brioche, with the jam sometimes nestled amongst heaps of house made ricotta or hazelnut almond butter to boot. Something magical was happening here. People were starting to talk.
When I moved back to LA from London in the summer of 2013, Sqirl was on my shortlist of new restaurants to check out and possibly approach about kitchen work. Scoping it out and grabbing a bite as soon as I was able, I became instantaneously smitten. From the painstakingly handwritten chalkboard menu to my bright and flavorful spiced carrot socca pancake topped with zippy fresh greens to the barista who gave me a complimentary house made almond milk latte after I had inquired about their almond milk ingredients and process, everything about Sqirl glimmered with vibrancy, intention, generosity and love. Sqirl is generous in its portions. It is generous in its commitment to local and ethical sourcing and the farmers with whom it works. It is generous to the earth through its seasonally changing menu. It is generous in its exuberance for its community. When I met Jessica that summer and found out they weren't hiring, she generously offered to connect me to some friends who own a locally revered bakery instead. She is becoming food world famous and she still stops to say hi when we cross paths, still remembers me every time.
While I have a lot of love for the heart of Sqirl, I have just as much love for the food that Jessica and her amazing team create. Almost every element of every dish is made in house. They pander to the indulgent and the health conscious in equal measure, with equal exuberance. They draw from culinary palates and traditions spanning from Asia to California to the Middle East. They make vegetarian dishes hearty and vegetables taste amazing (not to mention their baked goods). I could not have been more excited when I heard they were releasing a cookbook. When I found out that it would be titled Everything I Want To Eat, I thought, "Yes! Duh." That statement literally epitomizes how I—and from the looks of it, many other people—feel about Sqirl. Good move, Jessica.
Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking is a strange and beautiful book. It includes recipes for every type of diet and level of culinary experience, from the complete novice to the person who literally cannot wait to beet cure her own salmon. Its images are more closely related to pop art than on-trend food photos; as the review in the New York Times notes, "The book itself looks less like a cookbook than an exhibition catalogue".
The dish I'm sharing with you here is disarmingly delicious. You figure it'll be tasty because it's composed of a lot of individual tasty things thrown together on one plate, but then you take a bite and your brain is like, WHAT IS THIS?!? Because the way the flavors play together in your mouth, the zippy punch of the cilantro pistou clashing against the caramelized sweetness of the squash and the earthy toastiness of the buckwheat and the thick, creamy tang of the labneh is something your mouth has never experienced before. The other thing that I love about this recipe is that it can be either quick and easy or moderately involved, depending on what you feel up to. Jessica explains how to turn yogurt into labneh and dried mung beans into sprouts, but if you don't have the time, energy or curiosity for those processes yet, then just go ahead and buy some thick greek yogurt and mung bean sprouts. It comes together much more quickly than its long title would have it seem.
If you live in or are ever visiting Los Angeles, I implore you: eat at Sqirl. And wherever you are, get yourself a copy of Everything I Want to Eat from your library, local bookstore or the Internet. Take it into your kitchen and let its strange wonders into your life. And if you're pressed for time, you can always start with this recipe, right here.
The Sprouty Pod —
Mung bean sprouts, crunchy buckwheat, and roasted delicata squash with pomegranate, labneh, and cilantro pistou
from Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking by Jessica Koslow
Serves 6 as a light lunch or a first course
1/2 cup hulled buckwheat groats
Roasted Delicata Squash
2 large or 3 small delicata squash (3 lbs total)
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp. fine sea salt
1/2 bunch cilantro
1/3 cup (80 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 clamshell mung bean sprouts (see the book for how to sprout your own)
1 cup labneh or plain whole milk Greek yogurt (I love and used Straus) (see the book for how to make your own)
1 cup pomegranate arils
1/2 bunch cilantro
Really good olive oil
2 limes, halved
Fleur de sel
1. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C.
2. Spread the buckwheat out on a dry, rimmed baking sheet. Toast in the oven until golden brown and crunchy, about 10 minutes.
Roasted Delicata Squash
1. Adjust the oven temperature to 425F/220C.
2. Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out and discard the seeds, but do not peel the skin—it's tender and delicious.
3. Cut the squash into 2- to 3- inch chunks (I botched this direction; don't follow my photos) and set on a rimmed baking sheet. Toss with just enough oil to barely coat, about 3 Tbsp. Sprinkle the coriander evenly over the squash pieces. Season lightly with salt and a few grinds of pepper.
4. Bake until tender all the way through and a little caramelized on the bottom, 30 to 40 minutes. Let cool.
1. In a blender, combine the garlic, lemon juice, and salt. Blend on low speed until the garlic is finely chopped and mostly incorporated into the lemon juice.
2. Cut the sprigs of cilantro right at the point where the leaves start branching from the stems. Take the leafy top part and drop it into the blender. Blend on the lowest speed until the cilantro is coarsely chopped and there are still big pieces of leaves, about 10 seconds.
3. Gradually increase the speed while you slowly pour in the oil. Once you've added all the oil, blend on high speed for 20 seconds. The pistou will be emulsified and flecked with green cilantro leaves.
*(You can also make it by hand, first chopping the garlic and herbs, then whisking the lemon juice and oil together.)
1. Schmear 1 to 2 Tbsp. of the labneh in the bottom of each bowl. Scatter a small handful of sprouts and pomegranate seeds over the labneh, then drizzle with 1 to 2 Tbsp. of the pistou.
2. Top with a few pieces of squash, more sprouts and pomegranate seeds, and a spoonful of crunchy buckwheat.
3. Sprinkle some cilantro leaves over everything.
4. Finish with a drizzle of oil, a final spoonful of pistou, a strong squeeze of lime juice and a pinch of fleur de sel.