A Squared

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Life Lately

Although it is a bit frigid this week, the sun is out and spring has arrived in Chicago. And with the arrival of spring, I'm ending my winter hibernation-- and suddenly there are so many fun things to take part in! I try not to pack my calendar with too many events, but a few things have come my way lately that I just couldn't pass up. Here's a glimpse into my life, lately..


I've attended many a wine tasting, but never one like the one recently hosted by Two Lands: It was a virtual wine tasting! I joined several other food and wine bloggers from around the country for a wine tasting hosted virtually by the founders of Two Lands from their Australia headquarters. I tasted my wines from the comfort of my home office, in my yoga pants, with my furry pal Clery by my side. So much fun!


Two Lands was founded by winemakers Ehren Jordan and Bernard Hickin with one simple goal in mind: to marry the fruits of Australian vineyards with the craftsmanship of California winemaking to create one new high quality line of wines that represent both regions. Get it? Two Lands?


They guided us through the tasting of their four new varieties and the thoughts among the tasters were pretty unanimous: we loved the crisp flavor of the Pinot Grigio, which is the perfect wine for sipping on a hot summer evening! And everyone raved about the smooth bold flavor of the Shiraz.

And great news for you: These wines are a great deal, retailing around $13/bottle and available at major retailers (like Binny's!).


For Christmas, I treated my friend Alexis (and myself) to a French cooking class. We finally cashed it in recently and showed up for an intensive course in French cooking. The class at Cook Au Vin was small and intimate and our chef was legitimately French (and even indulged us in a few bars of Le Poisson from The Little Mermaid) and guided us through creating a Bordeaux-inspired menu.


We learned how to make cheese gougeres, roasted salmon with beurre blanc, homemade fettucine, and chocolate souffle from scratch. And it was all delicious! French cooking is simple and complicated-- all at the same time.


Alexis and I were tasked with making the souffle batter-- talk about pressure! Happy to say that these rich little desserts turned out perfectly.


Alexis and I did a lot of eating that week! We also stopped by Weber Grill in River North to catch up with Kit and Lauren and sample their new spring menu offerings. I hadn't been to Weber Grill in forever, but the smell of a hot grill piques my interest every time I walk by.


The new cocktail menu features an Old School Daiquiri, which was surprisingly tart and only slightly sweet (in a good way) compared to the daiquiris I have had before. And it was simple: just rum, sugar, fresh lime, and garnished with a gorgeous fresh flower.


I have also been all about roasted veggies lately, so I was loving the Petite Mediterranean Grilled Vegetable Salad. There was a great variety of roasted vegetables in the salad combined with mixed greens, olives, feta, and toasty pita croutons.


There were a few entree options, but I decided that since I was at Weber Grill I needed to go big and ordered the BBQ Beef Brisket. It was slow smoked for 14 hours and served with their signature BBQ sauce for the perfect combo of smoky, sweet, and spicy. And it was served with a few small tastes of BBQ staples like moist cheesy cornbread, blue cheese pecan coleslaw, and bourbon baked beans.


And last but not least, I finally jumped on the Rocksbox bandwagon-- and I'm loving it! I may not be a style blogger, but I love some accessories so when Rocksbox reached out and asked me to try their services, I graciously accepted.

So, what is Rocksbox? Rocksbox selects three pieces of jewelery for you try out based on your style and preferences. They send them your way for you to wear out in real life, and then when you're done you can either keep the pieces or send them back for another Rocksbox.


I loved my first Rocksbox and I feel like they nailed my style right off the bat. I'm obsessed with these statement earrings and am pretty sold on keeping them around. I have worn them to work, to a conference, and for a night or two out as well. Want to try Rocksbox for yourself? Use code aasquaredxoxo to get your first month of Rocksbox free!


A Squared

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What's For Dinner Wedensday: Farro with Roasted Vegetables & Pine Nuts

Today's recipe is of my favorite variety: taking an old 'go to' recipe and making it new, healthier, and still delicious. My mom and I discovered this recipe while watching Barefoot Contessa one summer morning while I was home from college: al dente orzo tossed with roasted vegetables, toasted pine nuts, and salty feta in a tangy vinaigrette. It was one of the best pasta salads I had ever eaten and we made it again and again that summer. It's still one of my favorite recipes to this day and I make it frequently when we host cookouts at home.


Recently, I was craving this orzo salad again. I wanted to make a big batch one weekend for a light dinner and then pack the rest up for lunch that week. It refrigerates well and is great eaten cold or at room temperature so it's a perfect warm weather dinner or lunch salad.


For my version, I changed things up a bit. Instead of orzo, I used farro-- my new 'go to' grain. I love it's chewy texture, nutty flavor, and the fact that it offers some great health benefits like tons of fiber, minerals, and complex carbs too. This recipe works great with quinoa too, like in this version I whipped up for weekday lunches a while back. The vegetables take on such a great sweet flavor when roasted and paired with chewy nutty farro, toasted pine nuts, and the bright flavors of lemon and basil, this is the perfect light and satisfying meal.



Ingredients:

  • 1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, ribs removed, cut into 1-inch dice
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, ribs removed, cut into 1-inch dice
  • 1 red onion, cut into 1-inch dice
  • 2 medium zucchini, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 5 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 2 cups cooked farro
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 1 tsp. lemon zest
  • Additional salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 10-12 basil leaves, chopped
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

On a large baking sheet, toss red pepper, yellow pepper, red onion, zucchini, garlic, 3 Tbs. olive oil, Kosher salt, and pepper until evenly incorporated. Spread out on pan and roast for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, stir the vegetables and then roast for an additional 15-20 minutes until vegetables are caramelized. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly. Transfer to a large bowl along with any remaining liquid from the baking sheet.

In a small bowl, whisk together remaining olive oil, lemon juice, zest, and salt and pepper.

Pour the vinaigrette over vegetable mixture and add farro, pine nuts, and basil. Toss to combine and top with grated Parmesan.


A Squared

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Best of Travel Food

As you may have gathered, I travel pretty frequently. Sometimes it's for personal trips, other times for business, but one thing remains true no matter why you're traveling: It is really hard to eat well when you're on the road. And I'm not talking about just being in other cities-- because in those scenarios, it's hard to narrow down the food options-- but more about during the travel process. You know: In airports, on car rides, in random locations by yourself... it can be a challenge!

I'm not at all a fast food girl (except for that one time that we went to In-N-Out Burger at 1 AM in LA), so that really limits my options when traveling. I'm assuming most of you reading this are food lovers too, so you may feel the same! So again, I have done the hard work for you and have scoped out a few notable options for you to keep in mind the next time you're on the road!


Cat Cora
I discovered Cat Cora with my mom and sister when we had a few hours to kill on our way home from San Francisco. Celebrity chef Cat Cora has opened a few airport outposts of this restaurant in Houston, Salt Lake City, in addition to the aforementioned location at SFO. The menu is in keeping with Cat Cora's cooking values: upscale versions of classic comfort food, Greek and Mediterranean-inspired flavors, and an emphasis on locally sourced or organic ingredients. With a few hours to waste at the airport, sitting here and sipping on cocktails (because we were all wined out after a few days in Napa) and having a good meal was the perfect way to prepare for a long night on the red eye.


We shared a few things like the grilled artichokes served with a tangy aioli. The flavors were fresh and tasty, though we found it a bit challenging to eat.


And we also shared some of the perfectly crisp sweet potato fries-- a great snack to share (or enjoy on your own) no matter how much time you have to wait at the airport.


The menu at Cat Cora is mostly small plates, so it's great for sharing or for trying a few different things. I ordered the lobster mac and cheese (which got a lot of buzz online) and it was delicious-- rich and creamy cheese sauce, generous pieces of lobster, and a crunchy topping. The serving was pretty petite, which was nice since it was a pretty rich dish.


To go along with the mac and cheese, I also opted for something on the healthier side and ordered the beet salad. It was another small plate, but with the perfect amount of roasted golden and red beets, red onion, arugula, and a few goat cheese toasts to round it out. I felt satisfied and not sick, which is rare for an airport meal-- and ideal for boarding an overnight flight back home!
 
To sum it up: the food at Cat Cora isn't just good for airport food-- it's really good, in general. 


Blaze Pizza
Blaze Pizza is a chain that's been popping up all over the US (including one location about a mile away from my home in Chicago), but I was never so happy to find one as I was on a recent business trip to Indianapolis. As I mentioned before, I'm not a huge fast food fan. I'm also not a big fan of dining out alone (I've tried and it tough), so this leaves limited options for business travel dining. Add to that the fact that by the time I got checked into my hotel it was dusk, it was raining, and I had two Powerpoints to complete... mapping a Blaze Pizza and finding it was a 6-minute drive from my hotel was the best part of that entire evening!


If you're not familiar with Blaze Pizza, you will be soon. They have dozens of locations around the country with several more set to open in the coming months. Three have popped up in Chicago over the past year or so. Their appeal is simple: a huge selection of quality ingredients that you can select to customize your own pizza, which is created and then fired on demand. And it's ready to eat in 180 seconds, so it's a great option for good quality tasty food (and pizza, at that!) in a hurry. Think Chipotle for pizza.


I was really impressed with the variety of fresh ingredients available at Blaze Pizza. As a foodie looking for something relatively healthy, this was a nice surprise. I opted for a pie on Blaze's Signature Pizza menu: the Art Lover. This pizza is topped with artichokes, mozzarella, ricotta, chopped garlic, and red sauce dollops. I opted to further customize it (with the help of Blaze Carmel's adorable and friendly staff) with the addition of fresh spinach and some roasted red peppers too.


Each Blaze Pizza has a great crispy crust, is packaged up in ecofriendly packaging, and is the perfect size for one person with maybe a slice or two left over. And I got to have a fresh custom pizza to eat in my yoga pants in my hotel room-- exactly what I wanted that night!


Tortas Frontera
And then there's my old travel standby: Tortas Frontera. I have said it before and I will say it again: This is the only airport food that I actually look forward to eating. That's a big statement to make, but it is true. I will actually plan my meals on travel days around eating at Tortas. It's also one of the main reasons I would want to arrive at O'Hare with time to spare. The food is good and the lines are long... Guess the secret is out!

Tortas Frontera has a few locations in terminals throughout ORD as well as a (new to me) location in the Chicago Loop too.

I don't even know what to recommend here because I have tried several menu items and the food is always consistently delicious-- made fresh with locally produced and grown (some of them grown onsite) ingredients.


For lunch and dinner, Tortas is obviously known for its tortas-- Tasty toasted Mexican sandwiches. I'm also a huge fan of their tacqueria salad and the guacamole bar can't be missed-- top your guacamole with anything from bacon to peppers to crumbled cheese... Or all of it!


And breakfast is equally yummy there. There are a few delicious breakfast tortas available with toppings like scrambled eggs, melty cheese, crispy bacon, spicy peppers. And on the lighter side, a Greek yogurt bar with toppings like fresh granola, fruit compote, and honey.


If you're traveling through ORD, I can't recommend this option enough. Nothing else holds a candle to it-- and again, it's delicious. Not just delicious for airport dining.


A Squared

Monday, April 20, 2015

Creamy Spinach & Roasted Red Pepper Dip

Let's take a little trip back in time today... back to when I was home from college for the summer and one of my closest friends was left dog/housesitting for an entire summer while the owners traveled to Europe. That's right: a handful of us barely legal young adults desperate to escape our parents' houses pretty much moved in with her for a nonstop summer party. The dog and the house survived... the dining table was not so fortunate, but that is a story for another day.


 We hosted some incredible parties at that house. But because we spent so much time there, we ended up enjoying many a summer barbecue there too. There was at least a night or two each week that I would stop by the grocery store on my way back from my summer internship and head straight over to the house for a potluck barbecue with my friends. The food was never fancy (we were poor college students and inexperienced cooks), but these nights are some of my best memories from that time in my life.


While one of the guys always manned the grill and served up burgers and hot dogs for us, I always came armed with a side dish. Back in the day when I was still a novice cook (but ac cook, nonetheless), I had two go to barbecue sides: A simple pasta salad (like this recipe that Alex and I enjoyed several times during our painting picnics in our new place last summer) and a classic spinach dip. You know the kind-- frozen spinach, mayo, sour cream, dehydrated soup mix, and maybe some green onions or water chestnuts served up in a bread bowl. It wasn't fancy or gourmet, but it sure was delicious!


I still have a soft spot for this dip and recently decided to bring it back into my recipe arsenal-- with a few tweaks, of course. This was mostly because I was just introduced to the deliciousness that is Pasta Chips-- and more refined chip deserves a more refined dip, don't you think? Pasta Chips are made with semolina flour (like your favorite pasta) and have a delicate cracker-like texture, but are perfect for dipping like a chip. And the great news is that they aren't greasy and they contain only 120 calories per serving and up to 60% less saturated fat than a regular potato chip.

After sampling a few flavors of Pasta Chips, I decided that the Garlic & Olive Oil variety was one of my favorite flavors and would pair perfectly with my updated spinach dip. This dip contains fresh (not frozen spinach), diced roasted red peppers, green onions, and a healthy serving of grated Pecorino Romano for flavor. And a combination of pantry seasonings kick up the flavor without adding anything weird or artificial to the mix. Add a few dashes of hot sauce and you have a flavorful, creamy, and lighter dip that tastes delicious served with fresh veggies and-- of course-- with crispy Pasta Chips!


Ingredients:

  • 2/3 cup light sour cream or plain Greek yogurt *If using yogurt, strain it first to remove excess liquid
  • 1/3 cup light mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano
  • 1 12-oz. jar roasted red peppers, drained and diced
  • 5 oz. bag fresh baby spinach, chopped
  • 3 green onions (green and white parts), diced 
  • 1/4 tsp. hot sauce
  • 1 Tbs. dry Parsley 
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp. onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp. ground thyme
  • 1/2 tsp. ground marjoram
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper

Stir all ingredients together in a medium bowl until well combined. Cover and refrigerate for a minimum of 2 hours.

Serve chilled with Pasta Chips and raw vegetables for dipping.



Editor's Note: Complimentary products were provided to me by Pasta Chips in order to facilitate this post. The opinions expressed here, as always, are my own. Thanks for supporting the brands that support A Squared!

  A Squared
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