On a rainy Friday morning, the weather did not deter the devotees lined up outside Sqirl, Jessica Koslow’s nationally renowned cafe. Long lines are a staple at this tiny, vibrant Virgil Avenue storefront, located in a nondescript East Hollywood neighborhood not far from the hipper boulevards of Silver Lake. Inside, servers laden with colorful plates navigated the crowded space with the litheness of ballet dancers.
Despite serving only breakfast and lunch, Sqirl has amassed a cult following and myriad awards for dishes that meld flavors from North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean — all prepared with farm-fresh California produce. Consider the Kokuho brown rice bowl, infused with sorrel pesto, preserved Meyer lemon, house-fermented hot sauce, watermelon radish and French sheep feta, then topped with a perfectly poached egg. Or the crispy rice salad flavored with lemongrass, mint, cilantro and ginger. Then there’s Koslow’s signature choice of some 35 seasonal jams she makes from scratch — including blood orange, Persian mulberry and elephant heart plum preserves.
In an interview, the 34-year-old Long Beach native said she wouldn’t be eating any of Sqirl’s signature bread dishes — such as her famous brioch ricotta toast — during Passover. Rather, she’ll consume boxed matzo, like the rest of us, but also veggies and her own version of matzo brie, which Sqirl will offer during the eight-day holiday.
“We make it almost like a pancake. And we serve it two ways: sweet and savory,” Koslow said while sipping Sqirl’s lemon-ginger tea during an interview. “We soak matzo in an egg mixture and ladle it into a skillet when we cook it. We prepare it very softly, with no browning at all. The savory version is served with an herb salad and greens, and it comes with nasturtium salad and our tomato and coriander jam. For the sweet, we use butter, powdered sugar and maple syrup.
“I actually really love this holiday,” she added. “Part of it is the discipline of keeping Passover for a week. The other part is the tradition of celebrating the holiday with friends and family.”
Koslow began hosting her own seders around 2012, for much the same reason she had created Sqirl the previous year. “I had moved back to Los Angeles from New York, and I wanted to feel the sense of community that I didn’t yet have here,” she said.
At her first seder, she served 25 guests in her modest Silver Lake duplex. The celebration, led by a Jewish friend, featured a modern haggadah that emphasized sharing the participants’ personal journeys from slavery to freedom.
And the food reflected Koslow’s penchant for clean flavors and spices both East and West. She seared her lamb ribs in butter and olive oil and served them medium rare, topped with a salsa verde infused with mint, parsley and capers, as well as a generous sprinkling of chopped fresh parsley and chives.
Over the years, Koslow’s seder favorites have included trussed, seared and roasted chicken stuffed with lemon, rosemary and thyme; seared spring peas with a splash of vinegar; and a shredded potato kugel combining eggs, matzo meal, cream, lemon zest and chives.
This year, she’s planning to make braised brisket cooked “low and slow” with verjus and one tart green apricot; matzo ball soup prepared with celery, carrots, onions and schmaltz; and roasted carrots spiced with za’atar.
The chef’s brisket recipe is very different from the Passover fare she ate during her childhood seders at her aunt’s home in Palos Verdes. “The brisket was made with onion soup mix, for sure,” said Koslow, adding that the dish was nevertheless tasty.
Raised by a single mother — a busy dermatologist — Koslow’s childhood meals were simple but healthy: Tyson skinless chicken breasts from Costco were a staple in the freezer, as was a brined corned beef from Bristol Farms, which her mother would boil on the stove for sandwiches.
But Koslow wasn’t a foodie as a child. A competitive ice skater from age 5, she had to watch her caloric intake. It was only after she quit the sport at 18 that she turned to food and cooking in earnest.
Koslow became an avid home chef while an undergraduate in economics at Brandeis University, as well as while pursuing a master’s degree in communications at Georgetown University.
But after consuming a scrumptious meal at Anne Quatrano’s famed Bacchanalia restaurant in Atlanta some time later, she wrote the chef an impassioned letter asking for a job. “It was really cheesy,” she recalled with a smile. “I said I would do anything, even scrubbing the floors, to work there. During our interview, she laughed at me.”
But Koslow landed the job on the spot. The gig paid only about $10 an hour, however, so to pay her bills she eventually took on a more practical job helping produce Fox’s hit show “American Idol” in New York and then later Los Angeles.
To keep her hand in the cooking game, Koslow juggled a day shift at Fox with baking all night at the Village Bakery in Atwater Village. “It was exhausting,” she said. Finally, she decided to use money she had earned as a producer to open her own venture — a shop that would sell jams she had learned to make from Quatrano. “I figured that would be a practical way for me to work by myself,” she said. In 2011, Koslow purchased the Virgil Avenue storefront that would become Sqirl. “There were cockroaches everywhere, and it was just a mess,” she recalled of the property’s initial condition.
But she cleaned up the place, and her inventive, not-too-sweet jams caught on so much that several years later, she transformed the joint into the breakfast-and-lunch place she continues to run.
These days, her business has become so successful that Koslow will soon open a to-go version, Sqirl Away, in a property she rented next door to the cafe. She’s also signed a two-cookbook deal with Abrams Books; her first, “Everything I Want to Eat,” will be in stores in October.
And early next year, Koslow will realize her passion project: Opening a yet-to-be-named, 100-seat restaurant devoted to foods of the Jewish Diaspora, plus to-go food and catering.
“It’s based on the idea that, why aren’t we mixing Sephardic and Ashkenazi cuisines?” she said. “Why aren’t we mixing sauerkraut, falafel and hummus? There are so many fantastic flavors in Jewish food that are not finding a crossover. Let’s combine Polish and Georgian and Moroccan and Israeli and Turkish Jewish cuisines. Even when we talk about cooking potatoes in brown butter with preserved lemon, that’s a Sephardic riff that I’ve entered into Ashkenazi flavors.”
Meanwhile, Koslow is squeezing out time in her hectic schedule to plan her upcoming seder. “Most chefs cook so much that they don’t want to do it in their own kitchens,” she said. “I barely cook at home. So that’s another thing that Passover provides for me. I have a task, which is to make my own dinner for 30 people, and I really look forward to it.”
Jessica Koslow’s Savory Matzo Brei
(Served with tomato coriander jam)
Photo by Jessica Koslow
3/4 sheet matzo
1/4 cup cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
Crack 6 eggs into a bowl. With a fork, whisk the eggs until a pale yellow, about 1 minute.
Add the 3/4 sheet of matzo, broken into small pieces, and cream and salt, stirring with a spatula. Let sit between 1 and 5 minutes.
Place a nonstick skillet over medium-low heat and add 1 tablespoon of butter. When the butter slows its bubbling, add 1/2 of matzo brei mixture (for 1 serving). You will start to notice the egg cooking around the bottom and sides of the pan. Push your spatula on the bottom of the pan and around the sides, while shaking the pan with your other hand so that more egg mixture touches the hottest parts of the pan while keeping the mixture from getting overly hot. Continue to shake and push cooked egg mixtures off the bottom while allowing more of the uncooked mixture to get its chance at the bottom of the pan a couple of more times. You can either continue to shake the pan and push with the spatula to make a soft scramble matzo brei, or you can turn it into a pancake by letting the pan sit without movement until the bottom appears set, about 10-15 seconds. Turn heat off.
The matzo brei should slide out onto a plate. Finish with a sprinkle of fleur de sel and freshly cracked pepper. Serve with a dollop of tomato coriander jam and a salad (we add nasturtiums to ours).
Note: If the eggs do not slide out onto the plate, you can use your spatula to loosen. Additionally, you can lift up part of the eggs away from the pan and insert a bit of butter between the eggs and the pan to help loosen any egg stuck to the pan.
JESSICA KOSLOW’S SHADY LADY TOMATO AND CORIANDER JAM
Shady Lady tomatoes have more going for them than just a great name. They are a farmers market favorite, an all-purpose tomato with good flavor. We turn them into savory jam, which is sort of like our version of ketchup, only a little spicier. It’s super-tasty in a grilled cheese sandwich.
You’ll have enough to use all year long.
2 scant tablespoons whole coriander seeds
3 1/3 pounds ripe, red tomatoes
2 1/4 cups sugar
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
In a small, dry skillet set over medium-low heat, toast the coriander seeds until they are fragrant. Remove from the heat and use the back of a spoon or a mortar and pestle to grind about 1/3 of the toasted coriander to a powder. Set the whole coriander and the ground coriander aside for adding later.
Cut the tomatoes in half and remove their core. Using an immersion blender or a food processor, blend the tomatoes until they’re saucy. Put the blended tomatoes in a large bowl, then stir in the sugar and salt. They don’t have to macerate for long, but there should be some sort of marriage between the fruit and the sugar. If you have the time, it helps to let them sit, covered with parchment, overnight.
Transfer the tomato mixture to the jam pot. Cook over high heat, stirring often, until you see white scum form on the surface. Skim it off, then keep cooking and skimming until most of the scum is skimmed. It’ll form forever, but there’s a point at which the scum falls back onto itself. At that point, stop skimming and add the whole and ground coriander.
Continue to cook the tomato jam until it has reduced in volume by around half or a bit more. It usually takes a good hour-plus. To know when it is done, I look for rings around the pot that tell me how much jam there was and now is. There should be one ring for how high the tomato jam was when it started cooking. Then you can estimate where half of that amount would be. The finished tomato jam will be a little loose and glossy, although it’s important to know that it never hits that thick, super-glossy jam texture.
Note on tomatoes: We use a variety of tomato called Shady Lady that we buy from Debbie Wong of Wong Farms. I love her tomatoes. We make this jam only when it’s the peak of the season, and we always make it with tomato seconds. Go to your farmers market and ask a tomato farmer for seconds, which are usually half the price of the perfect-looking tomatoes. Make sure they’re red, because if they are yellow and green, your jam will turn out brown.