Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking

everythingiwanttoeat_cover_web“What I’m giving you is the real deal …”

I’ve had a brilliant struggle with Everything I Want to Eat. There’s no point pretending everything I wanted to cook was easy because often it wasn’t; lots of the food in this extraordinary slice of LA anarchy is pretty challenging stuff for me.

New York Times described Jessica Koslow’s restaurant Sqirl as “the intersection of health food and diner food and Michelin-starred kitchens” and her book sits on pretty much the same set of lights, revving the engine. If you’re looking for half-asleep simple meals, easily resourced at your local Asda & filled with lazy old prep – which I often am, to be fair – this is not going to be the book to turn to every day. But that’s fine.

Everything I Want to Eat is unashamedly exceptional, wears excellence, invention and passion as badges of pride. It’s the food of Sqirl, with all the dedication, quirk and craft that implies  – take it or leave it.

♦♦♦

I started cooking from the book at breakfast time – Sqirl is famed as a breakfast place so it seemed the way to go.

I made the Breakfast Sausage first. I did this with pork mince from the supermarket, but clearly it would be much better if you ground a pork shoulder as suggested. The predominant flavour is fennel – because there’s a tablespoon of fennel seeds to two pounds of meat. The whole experience of cooking these sausages  – flat like a round lorne – was a first lesson in Sqirl ideology. What seemed easy in print, in execution was not.

The first problem was right there with the mince. The second, you need to know your fennel – not fennel seeds in general, but the ones you have in your cupboard. And the heat of your chilli flakes. If you’re going to approach this recipe in the half-arsed way I did, you might as well buy a packet of bacon from the corner shop instead.

I’m not saying that the Breakfast Sausage I made was inedible – far from it. It went well with a fried egg. But the thing was, it was not particularly lovely and every instinct tells me that if I walked into Sqirl and ordered the same thing, it would be gorgeous. So, in my first bout with Everything I Want to Eat, I was left with a bloody nose.

Go back, this mediocre result said. Go back, get some proper pork ground down the butcher. Test your fennel, adjust your fennel- better still, throw out that bitter-faced old fennel and get better fennel. Test the chilli flakes. Go back, do better. Pay attention to what you’re doing. Know what you’re cooking, or eat Rice Krispies.

The same happened with my Fried Sturgeon with tartar sauce. Now, I can’t source fresh sturgeon at all, so used cod. This dish is all about super-exceptional fish fingers: golden panko crumbed lovely, crispy posh fish fingers. But again, yes, my version was okay, better than the Breakfast Sausage, but nothing to write home about. I think my cod wasn’t fresh enough. I think if I made the breadcrumbs as suggested (whizzed up brioche) … I think my oil wasn’t the right temperature. Go back, go back …

Now at this point, if you’re a fairly average home cook like me, you’re either annoyed or inspired. It’s easy to get burned on this particular intersection.

I used to be annoyed, but now, if the book is straight up – which Koslow’s is – I’m far more likely to be inspired. The chances of learning to cook from a chef like her in real life is basically non-existent, so listening to the book is the next best thing. I gave up long ago thinking that if I made something crap from a cookbook it’s the author’s fault. It can be of course – typos, overestimated simplicity, etc. – but mostly it’s technique, precision. Good cookbooks don’t discourage, they drive you to try again. Take the posh fish fingers – perfect-heat oil, sharp-fresh fish. That’s what is needed. It’s a fine line.

I’ve grown to really like the hard edge of learning from cookbooks in this way. Of course, it can be disappointing if you’ve spent a bit on ingredients, I agree, but it’s rare you’ll ever get things just that wrong with writers of the calibre of Koslow. And the writer has to not cheat about what the book is all about. Koslow doesn’t cheat, and the challenge of her food is implicit. It’s not that you’re left scratching your head in bafflement when something doesn’t quite work when it should be simple; you’re aware of the step-up as you’re going along, and the more you make from the book, the more aware you are. I might not be very good at cooking this, but this is good cooking.

And of course, this is as good a place as any to say that if you’re a very accomplished cook, you’re not going to be having half the trouble I had, and Everything I Want to Eat will be just great.

So there’s a celebration on day three: the Brown rice porridge. Learning all the time to read between the lines of this book, I get some good rice, I take time and I pay attention. Pay attention to the swirling froth of milk, the nutty quality of rice, the heaviness of the pot. This one just worked. Delicious hot, delicious cold. Simple to make, but the thing is this: I get the feeling it would be just as simple to make it badly. Take your time, said the rice, do this right.

Jessica Koslow’s cooking, I think, is about attention. Her restaurant is a success, I imagine, for the same reason: attention to the food, attention to the customers, to staff, to suppliers. Therefore, I’m inspired to keep cooking from from her book – to make the more complicated dishes. Sure, the ingredients for some recipes are not going to be found round here any day soon, I lack a lot of skills – but there’s a lot of book.

♦♦♦

And here’s another reason I like Everything I Want to Eat – it looks fabulous. If there’s a meeting point of art book and cookbook, here it is. At first flick through, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a photography book from Phaidon or someplace. There are experimental recipe pics – tumbled and sliced cakes – landscape pics, and people pics.  There are super-vivid food pics, pinks and yellows popping out at me like the covers of seed packets. And above all, the clientele and staff of Sqirl – super resolution portaits of the customers and characters of Koslow’s restaurant, bursting with attitude and real life lookery. These photos somehow remind me of Martin Parr in both their brightness, and the wry way some of the subjects are caught.

The artistry extends to the cover, minimalist white with an explosion of framed colour in the photograph – the brown brioche almost hovering in air, something weird and wonderful about the perspective. And then take off the dustjacket – there’s just beautiful use of retro type on the plain white hardback. It’s the best jacket-off effect since the brilliant hidden marble of Nigellissima.  Everything I Want to Eat is a cookbook that is pushing at the norm design-wise and I really do salute that; chipped crockery, battered old iron cookware and steel tablespoons are great, but you do see an awful lot of those these days …

I’m also doing a disservice to the complexity of the book. Koslow is a jam maker, so there’s a whole section on making jam. There’s a brilliant colour spread on jointing a rabbit. There’s another spread on cooking eggs, and one on drinks, and a larder selection. The book gets out in the street, out to suppliers, out to the fields – into a farm kitchen. There’s a kind of idiosyncratic style in the way it all hangs together, and in parts its almost as if you’re suddenly reading from a different book – a radio taken apart and put back together askew for fun, that still plays.

The overall impact is of intelligence, that attention I was speaking of earlier, and a fierce desire to be different. In this sense, it reminds me very strongly of Florence Knight’s exceptional One – it has something of the same admirable lack of compromise. All good.

♦♦♦

From a book which has inspired me to cure bacon, that had me baking “doughnut-ish teacakes” (without the cardamom though; I’m cardamom’d out) and even – unthinkable before – starting to just fret at the very outside of an idea of jam-making, it seems ridiculous to end on an egg.

But I’m going to. End on an egg.

Jessica Koslow finishes her fried eggs in the oven. I know this might well not be new, but I’ve never heard of it before. I think I mostly gave this a go because I use de Buyer pans and so does Sqirl, and especially for this recipe. I love and hate de Buyer pans all at the same time, so a recipe specifically calling for them, I have to make it.  Sqirl does this thing with frying the eggs on the stove, then sticking them in the oven. There’s a great photo of  a three yolk fried egg slipping out of a de Buyer that looks as knackered as one of mine. I had to try it. Curiosity fried an egg.

It’s not a gimmick. There’s an extra creaminess to the yolk that results from this method and if you’re not normally a fan of the white over the orange in your fried egg – lots of us aren’t – there’s a different consistency about the oven version that is just a whole lot more appealing, properly set. The trick – and I know, because I did this over and over – is to make sure it goes from the stove to the oven at precisely the moment the old knackered pan is no longer visible under the spooling white. It is totally delicious.

This sort of thing takes extra time and just that extra bit more care – and that’s the theme of Everything I Want to Eat for me. The end result is worth it – the game is worth the candle. My understanding of this book at least – symbolised by a fried egg in a pan, in the oven – is that attention counts. In the end, I have learned far, far more from my brilliant struggle with Jessica Koslow than I’m ever likely to learn from the hundred celebrity celebrations of simple I could buy at Christmas.

And did I forget the handle of the de Buyer would be hot – nearly every time? Of course I did.

Pay attention, say the eggs of Sqirl.




Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking by Jessica Koslow, published by Abrams (£21.99)
Image credits: © 2016 Jaime Beecham