Thursday, January 29, 2015

Recent Chicago Restaurant Visits: Dining Out in North Center

I love the North Center neighborhood. Located on the north side of the city, North Center is a quiet, but bustling neighborhood filled with cute houses, fun neighborhood shops, and a surprisingly good restaurant scene. Alex and I first discovered the neighborhood a few years ago when his work was taking him up to Sola pretty frequently. Now that we live in the West Lakeview/Roscoe Village area, we are just south of this neighborhood and in walking distance of this charming area and all of the great food it boasts. Today, I want to tell you about two dining gems that make a trip to North Center totally worth it:

Browntrout
North Center

Browntrout has been on my 'to try' list for forever and I finally had the opportunity to dine there when my girlfriends and I decided to venture into North Center for our regular girls' dinner. Browntrout is a cozy little restaurant that only seats about 70 people including their little bar. The service is great-- super friendly, relaxed, and helpful-- and the menu is made up of local seasonal ingredients combined to create really interesting dishes. I loved this restaurant because it was cozy enough for a date night, relaxed enough for dinner with the family (there were a handful of kids with adventurous palates there that night), and the perfect location for us to share a few dishes and catch up on girl talk.



We started our dinner with a pair of really delicious seasonal salads. The first is a shaved black kale salad topped with crispy parmesan frico, shaved Brussels sprouts, fried shallots, pickled cranberries, pecans, tossed in a chile apple cider vinaigrette. The flavors were bold and tangy with a little hint of heat. The second salad we tried was my favorite of the two: butternut squash was shaved thin and pickled, topped with candied sunflower & pumpkin seeds, shaved parmesan, sherry maple ginger vinaigrette, and finished off with sage and creamy cheese. The pickled squash was wonderful and gave the salad a slaw-like taste and feel.


We each ordered an entree and sampled them between the three of us. The menu here changes so frequently based on what's available locally that even in the few weeks since dining here, the offerings have already changed a bit. So, pardon my memory! Parisienne gnocchi was by far the biggest hit at our table. Tender gnocchi was served with pumpkin puree, roasted Brussels sprouts spiced cauliflower served in a delicious and flavorful reduction.


We also tried the perfectly grilled local lake trout roulade served with crispy pancetta and shaved caramelized broccoli salad and pea tendrils over creamy orzo.


And our last entree of choice was the Walleye pike served with sous-vide chioggia beets, roasted Brussels sprouts, pea tendrils, and cauliflower with a little beurre blanc.



And we didn't forget about dessert! The three of us shared two of Browntrout's featured desserts of the evening. The first was a citrus scented Paw-Paw ice cream sundae, which our waiter described as tasting 'like Froot Loops' so we had to try it. This sweet and fruity ice cream was served with fresh ground cherries (which look almost like a tomatillo), sunflower seed crumble, and caramel sauce.


We also tried a delicious parfait, which was my favorite of the two.  Fresh vanilla custard was layered with seedling tart cherry, cherry jam, a pecan maple crumble, and fresh whipped cream. It was light, a little sweet and a little tart, and the perfect sweet ending to a really great meal!
Browntrout on Urbanspoon


Sola
North Center

Sola is an old favorite of Alex's and mine. We dined here for the first time several years ago and I am pretty sure it was the first time I'd ever ventured this far north on the brown line, but the food is well worth it. Sola's chef Carol Wallack brings her love of Hawaii to the menu at Sola, combining Hawaiian flavors with Midwestern ingredients for a menu that is truly unique to the Chicago food scene. Now that we live closer to Sola (a nice long walk away in good weather) we have been dining here more frequently and I have been reminded of how much I like this place!


Alex and I recently walked over to Sola for a low key date night and started with a highly recommend, but new to us appetizer: the kalua pork. We were both blown away by how delicious this dish was-- and that we had never thought to order it before! A thick slice of banana bread is topped with smoky pork slow cooked until fork tender. They top it all off with a sweet and smoky barbecue sauce and crispy onions... it's basically heaven.


Alex totally surprised me with his entree choice (as my money was on the wagyu burger or short ribs) and he ordered the light and flavorful soba noodles. This dish was chock full of delicious ingredients like apples, napa cabbage, carrot,thinly shaved butternut squash, cilantro, mint, thai basil, and roasted peanuts in a soy lime sweet chili vinaigrette. These noodles had great bold Asian flavor and were surprisingly filling for a vegetarian dish.


I decided to order off of Sola's nightly special menu because a seafood dish there caught my eye. The filet of Opah (Hawaiian Moonfish) was perfectly seared and crispy on the outside. It was served with a side of kale spaetzle (a German-style dumpling) and was topped with thinly shaved and lightly dressed butternut squash and red onion. This was such a nice light and fresh tasting dish that still felt appropriate for a chilly winter's night.


Back on our Sola kick, we brought my parents and sister back here for brunch during their visit to Chicago a few weeks later. We started by sharing an order of malasadas, a warm and sugar-coated Portuguese donut. Sola serves them with warm chocolate and a raspberry coulis for dipping. These are so addictive and the order is huge, so sharing them with the table is the perfect opportunity to enjoy a malasada (or two) and to still have room for an entree.


While Alex usually orders something sweet here like pancakes, I'm a big fan of the savory brunch dishes at Sola. My dad and I both ordered the brunch special that day: An overstuffed breakfast wrap filled with Sola's delicious kalua pork, scrambled egg, guacamole, and arugula. It was topped with a fresh and spicy pico de gallo. This wrap was probably big enough to share between two people, but it was so delicious (that pork could make anything taste amazing) that I had no trouble polishing most of it off.


I also stole a few bites of my mom's brunch because it just looked so good. The huevos benedictos consist of a huge slab of sweet cornbread topped with spicy Mexican chorizo, poached eggs, and a salsa hollandaise sauce. This southwestern take on classic eggs Benedict was really decadent and the flavors were perfect. Oh, and can we talk about those hashbrowns? They are simple and delicious at Sola and worth ordering if your entree doesn't come with them already.
Sola on Urbanspoon



Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Blueberry Banana Buttermilk Pancakes

It's National Blueberry Pancake Day!

Yes, that's an actual thing and I could not be happier about it. Today, I'm partnering with Driscoll's to share the perfect recipe for celebrating this delicious holiday!


Pancakes are one of my favorite weekend breakfasts. They remind me of growing up and being home with my family when my parents would whip up a triple batch (there were a lot of us, after all) and we'd all sit around the table laughing and eating together on a lazy Sunday morning.


And while I love pancakes in general, I really love blueberry pancakes-- the pop of tart sweetness makes a normal pancake extra special. And the recipe I am sharing with you today is super special: blueberry banana buttermilk pancakes are moist, fluffy, and full of fruit flavor. Buttermilk pancakes are a no brainer, but I love to fold in mashed ripe bananas. They add a great consistency to the pancakes, a subtle banana flavor, and they eliminate the need for extra sugar in the batter. So, between antioxidant rich blueberries, potassium-filled bananas, and the elimination of added sugar you could almost call these pancakes "healthy." Right?


Healthy or not, blueberry pancakes are the perfect breakfast for whipping up to share with your friends and family. It's a comforting and classic breakfast that's definitely a crowd pleaser.

For serving, I highly recommend that you top these pancakes with fresh blueberries. Plump fresh blueberries provide a fun textural difference to the warm and super sweet cooked berries inside the pancakes. And these Driscoll's berries are beautiful, so who wouldn't want to eat a plate full of these pancakes?


Ingredients:

  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1/2 Tbs. canola oil
  • 2 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 1 cup fresh blueberries
  • Cooking spray or butter, for cooking
  • Additional blueberries, sliced bananas, maple syrup, butter for serving

In a large bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and baking powder.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the beaten egg, buttermilk, oil, and bananas. Add to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. The batter may be lumpy, but don't overmix it.

Fold in blueberries until evenly distributed.

Lightly grease a large nonstick pan and heat over medium heat. Drop 1/4 cup pancake batter and cook for 2-3 minutes, until the batter begins to bubble and the bottom is golden brown. Flip the pancakes and continue to cook until the edges are dry and the second side is golden brown as well.

Serve warm and top with blueberries, sliced bananas, maple syrup, or butter.


Editor's Note: This post was sponsored by Driscoll's. As always, the opinions expressed herein are my own. Thank you for supporting the brands that support A Squared!



Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Liebster Award

So, this is fun: Recently, the super sweet Danielle from the blog Chicago Collective nominated A Squared for the Liebster Award. The Liebster is a fun little award given to bloggers by other bloggers and a great way to recognize great blogs, get introduced to new blogs, and to get to know your favorite bloggers better. I was so flattered by her nomination and excited to stray from my regularly scheduled posts for something a little different today. So, here goes...

1. If you could wear a nail polish color for life, what would the color be? This is a funny question for me because I have been an anxious nail biter for about as long as I have had teeth, so I rarely have painted nails... if I had to pick though, I am definitely partial to Essie - Master Plan. All about gray polish!

2. Who/What is your fashion inspiration? My overall personal style is simple and classic, but with some drama in the details like chunky jewelery or a bold pop of color. My inspiration comes from timeless designers like Ralph Lauren, the structured shapes and patterns of the 1960s (I am all about a shift dress), and Jackie-- the Onassis, not Kennedy years.

via

3. What is the passion behind your blog? Food! I love to eat it, to make it, and to share it with the people I love. Though the blog started as a way to keep friends and family in the know on what's happening in our lives, the posts that I really loved writing were the recipe posts and the updates on our adventures in Chicago-- and that's how the blog naturally evolved into what it is today.


4. What was your biggest accomplishment of 2014? My biggest accomplishment of last year had nothing to do with my blog, but it was huge and worth mentioning. In June of 2014 my husband and I bought our first home. It's something we have been talking/dreaming about since shortly after we moved to Chicago and way before we were even married so it's been a long time coming. And after a wedding and years of layoffs and career/financial uncertainty, it felt like a really huge accomplishment.

5. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? Right here in my new[ish] condo, of course. Although this time of year in Chicago does make me wonder if living somewhere that's more temperate all year round (like northern California or the Carolinas) might be where it's at.

6. Favorite song at the moment? "Thinking Out Loud" by Ed Sheeran. I just can't get it out of my head.


7. Flats or Heels? Honestly, flats. I love to break out my heels occasionally, but I am a flats girl and I own tons of them: ballet flats, boat shoes, driving mocs... I own them all. I'm on the go a lot and walking a puppy and I just can't do all of that successfully in heels.

8. Who would you most like to see in a concert front row? Right now it's a toss up between Billy Joel down the street at Wrigley Field or Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett at Ravinia.

9. If you could relive any moment in your life, which would you choose? Reliving my wedding day is probably the most obvious choice-- and it was wonderful, so I would relive it every day too. I would also love to relive any of the moments of the semester I spent abroad in Italy. I definitely didn't appreciate it as much as I could have as a 21-year old college student. I'd make the most of it if I could relive it again. 


10. How did you come up with your blog name? A Squared originally began shortly after my wedding as a way to keep far away friends and family updated on what was happening in our lives. A Squared was a play on our names-- Anne and Alex. It doesn't truly apply anymore, but I would have a hard time parting with the name now that this blog is 3 years old!

11. Blog goals for 2015? To continue making A Squared better by creating more thoughtful content, taking better photos, and partnering with reputable bloggers and brands. I'm excited for what the future holds for this blog!


I now nominate:
  1. Katie from Live Half Full
  2. Erin from Color Me Styled
  3. Amanda from The Ghost Guest
  4. Rachel from An Eventful Life
  5. Sara from Project Soiree
  6. Christina from Chritiques
  7. Lauren from Lake Shore Lady
  8. Paige from Tomatoes for Cucumbers 
  9. Sapna from The Vegetarian Tourist
  10. Lauren from I Had a Big Lunch

And my questions for these ladies are...

1. If you could eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
2. If you could lunch with any 3 ladies-- alive or dead-- who would they be?
3. What inspired you to begin blogging?
4. What was your biggest accomplishment of 2014?
5. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
6. Favorite song at the moment?
7. Chocolate or vanilla?
8. What was the best restaurant you visited in 2014?
9. If you could relive any moment in your life, which would you choose?
10. How did you come up with your blog name?
11. Blog goals for 2015?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Italian Mac & Cheese with Chicken Sausage, Onions & Sun Dried Tomatoes

This Italian version of mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food-- creamy inside, crunchy on top, cheesy, and packed with flavorful add-ins that give it some elevated Italian flair.


Last week I rounded up a few great recipes to serve if you're planning on hosting a Super Bowl party this weekend. Today I have one last new recipe to add to the bunch-- and this a good one! I love a good mac and cheese and a big batch of it is the perfect cheesy food to serve to a crowd of game watchers. And it's perfect for making ahead too! Make and bake it a day or two before the big game and then just pop it into the oven to warm up and serve to your guests.


In this version, three deliciously different Italian cheeses -- nutty Parmesan, creamy fontina, and funky Gorgonzola-- are melted together into a perfect cheesy sauce. That sauce is combined with tons of freshly cooked pasta, diced Italian chicken sausage, sweet caramelized onions, and tangy sun dried tomatoes. That mixture is topped with an herbed panko and cheese combination to create a flavorful crunchy crust. All of that together = mac and cheese perfection.


As I mentioned previously, this decadent dish is a great addition to your Super Bowl spread. This is also a great dish to make for sharing too. One of my girlfriends just had a baby-- okay, "just" is not totally accurate as she gave birth at the end of October and it has taken me this long to finally make it over to see her and meet her adorable son-- and she's a big mac and cheese lover. So, I brought a pan of Italian mac & cheese with me to visit so that she'll have a dinner ready to come home to now that she's heading back to work. This is an easy and impressive dish to bring to any new mom or other friend in need of a convenient dinner.


This recipe will easily fit an 9X13 baking dish. I split it up and made one 8x8 pan for my friends and an additional smaller casserole for us to enjoy too. This would also be perfect divided among individual crocks as well.


Ingredients:

  • 3 Tbs. olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • Salt, to taste
  • 2 Italian chicken sausage links, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1/3 cup oil-packed sun dried tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 lb. tubular short cut pasta *I used Barilla Cellantini
  • 2 cups 2% milk
  • 1 cup fat free low sodium chicken broth, plus more (1-2 cups additional) for deglazing
  • 1 1/2 Tbs. all purpose flour
  • 2 cups grated fontina, divided
  • 3/4 cup grated Parmesan, divided
  • 1/3 cup crumbled Gorgonzola
  • 1/2 Tbs. dry parsley
  • 1/2 cup panko
  • 1/2 tsp. dry Italian seasoning

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Lightly grease a 9x13 baking dish (or a combination of smaller baking dishes, if you choose).

Cook pasta according to package directions in a large pot. Drain, but do not rinse and set aside.

Heat 1 1/2 Tbs. olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add onions and a pinch of salt, stirring occasionally. If onions begin sticking to the pan or browning too quickly, reduce heat to medium low and add a little chicken broth to the pan. Continue this process for about 30 minutes until onions are golden and very soft.

Add the chicken sausage and red pepper flakes to the pan and saute for 6-8 minutes, stirring frequently. When sausage is browned, remove from heat and stir in sun dried tomatoes.

In the same pot in which you cooked the pasta, whisk together milk, broth, and flour. Bring to a boil and then reduce to medium. Cook for about 10 minutes, whisking frequently until the mixture has reduced and thickened slightly. Remove from heat and stir in 1 3/4 cups fontina, 1/2 cup Parmesan, Gorgonzola, and parsley.

Stir until smooth and combined. Fold in cooked pasta until coated evenly with the cheese sauce. Add the sausage, onion, and tomato mixture and fold until just combined. Pour into a prepared baking dish.

In a small bowl, combine remaining 1 1/2 Tbs. olive oil, fontina, Parmesan, panko, and Italian seasoning. Stir to combine and the sprinkle evenly over the pasta mixture in the baking dish.

Bale for 20 minutes and until golden brown on top. Remove from oven and let stand 5 minutes before serving.


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