A Squared: July 2012

Monday, July 30, 2012

Weekend Recap: A Picnic, A Reunion, & A Lot of Nutella

Oh Monday, how quickly you always seem to appear.  And I am never quite ready for your arrival-- especially after a fun summer weekend.  Our weekend wasn't a crazy one, but it was busy and full of friends that we don't get to spend enough time with.

On Saturday we headed up to Montrose Beach for a BBQ with Alex's coworkers.  Our friend/Alex's coworker Tony organized it (and we lucked out with one of the most beautiful days of the summer) complete with food from Smoque, one of Chicago's best BBQ joints.
  That's Tony below in his BBQ appropriate Piggly Wiggly tee shirt.

 After a long afternoon out in the park we were ready for a relaxed Saturday dinner.  There's this little place called the Crepe Bistro that I pass everyday on my walk to work that has always picqued my interest.  It is tucked away in a part of the Loop that's pretty quiet on weekends, so we decided to it would be the perfect place for a low key date.  Banana Nutella Crepes.  That's really all I need to say about this place. 

Alex plays soccer on Sunday mornings and then that afternoon we dusted off the City Walk deck and ventured up to Southport Avenue.  I fell in love with the area and am now reconsidering all of my plans to move up to North Shore in a few years.  More on my inner housing conflict later though...

We ended the weekend in maybe the best way possible: a Skype reunion with (most of) our best friends from our days in Boston.  Technical difficulties aside (apparently none of us really knew how to use Skype properly in this capacity), it was great to catch up with everyone face to face (so to speak).  We haven't all been together in person since our wedding and of course that means that Alex and I barely saw them since we were occupied with our wedding guests and plans.  Our group is all over the U.S. now, but I think it's pretty special that we all put Sunday evening plans aside to log on from our respective locations-- Chicago (of course), Boston, New York, Charleston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles (by way of Rhode Island)-- to spend some quality time together.  We miss you, friends!

I also got a little creative in the kitchen this weekend.  I had a ton of random (and very ripe) leftover fruit hanging around so I decided to incorporate it into a breakfast for Alex and me.  Instead of banana pancakes (which I am so tired of making whenever we have ripe bananas), I found a baked oatmeal recipe on Pinterest and adapted it based on the ingredients that I had on hand.  It's really filling, tasty, and actually pretty healthy.  And I still have enough left over to eat for breakfast tomorrow.  I added the Nutella element for Alex.  Little did I know we'd be enjoying Banana Nutella Crepes later that evening too!

Baked Oatmeal

  • 2 cups old fashioned rolled oats
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup hazelnuts, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup strawberries, sliced
  • 1/2 cup blueberries
  • 2 cups skim milk
  • 1 large egg
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 ripe banana, peeled, 1/2-inch slices
  • 1 1/2 Tbs. Nutella

Preheat oven to 375°F and generously spray the inside of a 8x8 inch baking dish with cooking spray and place on a baking sheet.
In a large bowl, mix together the oats, sugar, baking powder, zest, cinnamon, salt, hazelnuts, and half the berries. (Save the other half of the berries for the top of the oatmeal). In another large bowl, whisk together the milk, egg, butter and vanilla extract.
Add the oat mixture to prepared baking dish. Arrange the remaining strawberries and blueberries. Add the banana slices to the top then pour the milk mixture over everything. Gently shimmy/shake the baking dish to help the milk mixture go throughout the oats.
Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until the top is nicely golden brown and the milk mixture has set. Meanwhile, microwave Nutella in a microwave-safe dish for 60-90 seconds until it just starts to liquefy.  Be sure to keep an eye on it as if you cook the Nutella for too long it will become solid.  Drizzle the Nutella on top of the baked oatmeal and serve.

Inspired by original recipe via Inspired Taste.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

City Walk #32: Southport Avenue

It's been a long time since we've done a City Walk!  The last few weeks of the summer have been really busy and this Sunday we finally had some free time and decided to find another City Walk adventure.  This time we chose #32: which goes up and down Southport Avenue in the Lakeview neighborhood.  We've been here a few times-- for Halloween/birthday parties at Mystic Celt and for dinner with our friends Nick and Tara when they lived in the neighborhood, but have never really taken the time to explore it.  It's a really cute neighborhood.  Truthfully, it's a bustling family-friendly  area and spending time up here made me seriously reconsider our plan to buy a house in the suburbs in the next couple of years.  Now we just need to win the lottery!

We began this City Walk on W. Belmont (before hitting the Southport corridor) at Paperboy, a store for all things paper.  Unfortunately, like many of the food/retail stops on our City Walks, Paperboy is no more.  Instead, it's now the Bleeding Heart Bakery known for its cupcakes and frequent appearances on Groupon.com. 

Our second stop on the City Walk was Uncle Fun [2] on W. Belmont a.k.a. Alex's new favorite place in the whole world.  It's like a toy/magic/joke store straight out of a PeeWee Herman movie.  We found whoopie cushions, mustaches, black gum, and all sorts of other childhood jokes (in addition to an assortment of other non-PG items too).  I pretty much had to drag Alex out of the store.  I have a feeling we will return to Uncle Fun again.

Next up was a trip to Starbucks-- not on the City Walk, but a necessity to handle the rest of the walk.  I needed an iced tea and Alex needed some poundcake. Typical.

The next two stops on the City Walk are two popular restaurants along the Southport corridor.  The first is Sopo Lounge & Grill [3], a place that I have always wanted to check out.  The second restaurant is Rise Sushi & Sake Lounge [4], a place we will likely never try.  A little known fact about the Mister and me: we're two of the only people on this planet that do not enjoy sushi.  We're also both left-handed.  Amazing that we found each other, right?

The next three stops on the City Walk were all boutiques and (surprise!) 2 of the 3 are no more.  Next up was Flirts [5], which is now a Free People store.  Across the street was Krista K [6] and I was reminded that I actually won a shopping party at this store through Minds Matter's Spring for the Students fundraiser that I never actually redeemed (probably because of all of the wedding and moving madness of 2011).  Bummer.  After that was the Red Head Boutique [7], now a Benefit cosmetics store.

Next up was-- wait for it-- 2 more stores that are now out of business.  Flypaper [8], an upscale paper shop is now a handmade jewelry store called Serda's.  Across the street was the store formerly known as classy lingerie shop Trousseau [9].  It's now a Paper Source.  Remember how much fun Alex and I had in a Paper Source a few City Walks ago?  We refrained from going in after our shopping expedition at Uncle Fun.

 Southport Grocery & Cafe [10] was the next stop and I was desperate to stop in here.  Bad news for you Sunday afternoon folks: they close at 4 pm on Sundays, so plan accordingly!  I have heard from more than a few people that Southport Grocery serves some of the best brunch in Chicago so this place is for sure going on my list for future lazy weekend brunches.

Immediately following was another place that looked like a fabulous spot for a lazy brunch or cup of coffee while catching up with the girls (or my husband).  Julius Meinl [11] is a Viennese-style coffeehouse and it is really cute with a pretty sizeable outdoor patio.

Sigh.  Two more stores that have ceased to exist.  Home decor shop Splendor [12] is now a floral shop called Southport Blooms.  On the same block was a store called Fourth World Artisans [13] which is now the Baby Doll Boutique.  I refrained from going in and buying out the store for little Maeve.

Our final stop on the City Walk is a location that will hopefully never go away.  It's the historic Music Box Theatre [14].  It is a very cool old movie theatre where they show lots of foreign and independent films.  Fun fact: if you've seen the movie The Vow (Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams in love in Chicago? You know I saw it!), this is the theatre from the opening scene.

Another Chicago neighborhood that I have fallen in love with and another one that makes the decision of whether to stay or go (in the future) that much tougher.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Top 10 Foods to Lower High Blood Pressure

I recently visited my doctor's office for an annual check up and was very surprised to find out that I have higher than normal blood pressure.  This was the first time that any doctor has told me this and  she was concerned enough that we discussed changing the medications I take, follow up blood pressure readings, and even seeing an internist.  This is scary stuff.  I'm not even in my 30's yet and although it wasn't a dangerously high number, it was high enough that it set off an alarm for my doctor.  That's enough for me to know that it is time to get serious about my health before any real damage is done.

Just to look better in my jeans, I know I need to lose a few pounds-- trust me, I have definitely slacked on my diet and exercise since the wedding.  I was pretty regimented for a full year making sure that I looked my best in that dress and I have admittedly become too relaxed with keeping it up since then.  When my doctor also suggested that I lose weight I was offended at first (no doctor has ever told me that before-- even when I was legitimately FAT in college!), but then she also mentioned that this could play a huge role in lowering my blood pressure.  After a few days of being really irritated with her, I did my own research and she was right.  I do need to take control of my health and my future family's health. 

From now on I'm going to be much more dilligent about sticking to a rigorous exercise routine.  Even on those days that I really don't feel like it, I will at least get on the exercise bike or take a walk around my neighborhood.  And although I already eat pretty well, it's time to buckle down there too.  Especially when we're dining out.  That's really where I lose all will power.  I did some research and made a list of 10 of the top foods to eat to lower blood pressure and I am going to make a real effort to start including them in my everyday diet, which means that you will be seeing these ingredients in more and more of the recipes that I post here.  I've also provided links to a few of the recipes that already live here on A Squared and include those ingredients.

Here's to lower blood pressure and a healthier life!

Ten Foods to Lower High Blood Pressure
Derived from Joy Bauer's original list
  1. Oranges
  2. Skim Milk (Tomato-Basil Soup with Garlic Cheese Toasts)
  3. Bananas
  4. Sweet Potatoes (Balsamic BBQ Chicken & Roasted Sweet Potato Hash)
  5. Herbs & Spices (BBQ Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches)
  6. Salmon (Grilled Sesame Salmon with Vegetables)
  7. Dark Chocolate
  8. Spinach (Orzo Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette)
  9. Unsalted Sunflower Seeds
  10. Beans (White Bean & Artichoke Salad with Pesto Vinaigrette)

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What's For Dinner Wednesday: Maple Mustard Chicken & Dijon Roasted Potatoes

I am totally exhausted on this Wednesday.  Alex and I went to a White Sox game last night and weren't even out all that late and I am feeling it today.  I definitely can't hang like I used to-- I think I'm getting old. 

We were also drinking beer and eating greasy ballpark food so for this week's dinner, I am revisiting a healthy old favorite: Maple Mustard Glazed Chicken.  It's no secret that I am a huge fan of Cooking Light magazine-- mostly because receiving a new issue every month and flagging healthy new dinners to try is a fantastic cure for my recipe ADD.  However, like any seasoned cook I have a few recipes that I always return to and this chicken dish (from Cooking Light) is one of those for me.  Today I wanted to share my own recipe for a side dish that makes a great accompaniement to this simple and flavorful entree.  These potatoes are low in fat, full in flavor, uses mostly ingredients that I suggest you keep around as essential pantry items, and they are super easy to make. I hope you enjoy them as much as we do!

For Maple Mustard Glazed Chicken, see original recipe post here.

Dijon Roasted Potatoes 

  • 1 lb. baby red potatoes, diced into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup Vidalia onion, diced
  • 2 Tbs. Dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 1/2 Tbs. chopped fresh herbs *I used a combination of rosemary, thyme, parsley, and chives. You could also use dry herbs if you don't have fresh ones on hand. 
  • Cooking or olive oil spray 
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  In a large bowl, whisk together mustard, oil, salt, pepper, and herbs until blended.  Add in potatoes and onions and toss to coat.  Transfer the potato mixture into a 9"x9" glass baking dish coated with cooking spray.  After baking for about 20 minutes, take the pan out and stir the potatoes to ensure that they cook evenly.  Bake for an additional 15-25 minutes until the potatoes are fork tender and golden brown on top.

Monday, July 23, 2012

My Favorite Things: Birthday Wish List

I have a birthday coming up in a matter of weeks.  That crept up awfully quickly this year!

Truthfully, I haven't been in the habit of making birthday wish lists for a while and when I have been asked what I would like to receive it is sometimes really hard to come up with an answer.  This year though we've been seriously focused on our post-wedding budget and thus I have been focused on not making frivolous purchases for myself.  Instead, I pin them on Pinterest and covet them quietly (or publicly, depending on how you look at it).  So, in case anyone's shopping for me (cough cough... Alex) here are a few suggestions of items that I would like to buy for myself, but haven't since I've been aggressively contributing to our nest egg instead.

Birthday Wish List

Jack Rogers leather sandals

Banana Republic beaded clutch

Stella Dot rope necklace
stelladot.com  (necklace and paradise brooch)

Clarisonic gift sets kit

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Weekend Recap: Carb Overload

Hello blog friends!  Hope you all had a lovely weekend.  I'm feeling a bit sluggish this evening as I've been carbo-loading along with Alex for the past week.  He's been training for today's half marathon and requested that we eat pasta basically every day this week.  Being the good wife that I am, I obliged.  The only problem is that I haven't been training for a race so this week's diet did not work in my favor.  Needless to say, we grilled a steak tonight.  No pasta on the side.

Keeping with the week's pasta theme Friday night was date night at Scoozi, one of our favorite restaurants.  We both have a bit of a sweet tooth, so after dinner we made our way over to one of Chicago's new frozen yogurt places (there are suddenly 5 or 6 new ones that have just popped up downtown) for a little dessert.

 Saturday was a pretty low key day.  Alex had me prepped to be up at 5 AM on Sunday (ick!) so after doing our usual weekend errands we watched a movie and made dinner at home.  It was pasta-- I know you're surprised!  I've included the recipe below and I think it was a really good pre-race dinner full of lean protein, no dairy, and served on whole wheat pasta (with veggies on the side, of course).  It's also a slow cooker recipe that only requires a few ingredients, which was great since we were running around all day and dinner was done when we got home.

Getting ready to run!

There he is!  Caught him on State Street.
Spotted him one more time-- I was waiting in front of The Rookery.

Sunday morning was race day and unfortunately, it didn't go quite as well as planned.  Alex had been suffering from a pulled hamstring since last weekend and although he rested it all week it took its toll today.  Shortly after I spotted him at The Rookery (above), Alex called me from the halfway point and said his leg was hurting too much to continue.  He was disappointed, but I'm still proud of him for powering through for as long as he did.  And frankly, the guy has completed multiple marathons.  I know he can do it when his body allows for it.  :)

To lift his spirits after the race we went to see the Dark Knight Rises later on Sunday.  I'm pretty sure this made his day.  It was a great movie, but since this is our blog I'd like to take a moment and end this post with a quick rant.  WHY did so many people bring their young children to see this movie?!  There were quite a few kids (like, in the single digit age range) in our theatre and besides the fact that it was rated PG-13 and close to 3 hours long, the movie was a really dark story about terrorism that made me (an adult) a bit squeamish in some of the more realistic/violent scenes.  This was not a comic book cartoon.  Use your heads, people.

Slow Cooker Chicken Marinara

  • Olive oil or cooking spray
  • 1/2 onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 1/2 cups marinara sauce (I use my homemade sauce)
  • 1/3 cup dry red wine
  • Pasta, for serving 

Turn your slow cooker on to the "low cook" setting and lightly spray the bottom with cooking spray or olive oil.  Rinse the chicken breasts, pat dry with paper towels, and season both sides with salt and pepper.  Place the chicken breasts in the slow cooker and layer onions on top.  Combine the marinara sauce and red wine and pour over the chicken and onions.  Cook for 6-8 hours (and stir 2 or 3 times if you are home and you can).  Use a large fork to shred the chicken into smaller chunks and serve warm over pasta.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What's For Dinner Wednesday: Vietnamese-Style Chicken Salad

One of the wonderful things about living in Chicago (especially in the summer) is that there is always something going on-- and a lot of the time it is cheap and/or free. In the summer the Chicago Park District hosts a Movies in the Park series so almost every night of the week you can go to some park around Chicago and watch a free movie on the big screen al fresco. As you are well aware, it's been a busy summer for us but we finally made the 5 minute walk down the street to our neighborhood park for a screening of The Fugitive last night. Can you believe I have never seen The Fugitive before?

It was hot and muggy, but it's always fun to change things up with a casual mid-week date night.  And the price is certainly right for our responsible adult budget.  We brought our beach chairs, bug spray, and a picnic dinner and had a great time.  I found a great recipe in Food Network Magazine for Vietnamese Chicken Sandwiches that I had made and we both actually reall enjoyed.  Even Alex had seconds!  However, they were tough to eat as sandwiches so I suggest serving over lettuce as a salad with bread on the side or inside of a whole wheat wrap. 

Vietnamese-Style Chicken Salad

  • 1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 medium carrots, shaved into ribbons with a vegetable peeler
  • 4 radishes, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1/3 cup light mayonnaise
  • Juice of 2 ripe limes
  • 2 tsp. honey
  • 2 Tbs. chopped gherkins, plus 1 Tbs. brine from the jar
  • 1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 3 cups shredded chicken (1 rotisserie chicken breast should yield plenty of white meat)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 Tbs. Sriracha
  • 6 cups mixed greens or romaine lettuce
  • Crusty bread, for serving
Soak the red onion, carrots, radishes, and bell pepper in ice water for 5 minutes, then drain. Whisk mayonnaise, the lime juice, honey, cornichons and brine, Sriracha, and salt in a large bowl. Add the chicken, onion, carrots, radishes, red pepper, and chopped cilantro and toss.  Serve over lettuce with bread on the side and enjoy.

Derived from original recipe courtesy of Food Network Magazine, 2012.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Another Gratuitous Granola Post

Normally today I would do a weekend recap post for you, but to be honest, this weekend was mostly a bust.  We had a disastrous Friday the 13th date night complete with a broken movie theatre projector and a greasy dinner that made me feel kind of ill the next day.  And then on Saturday I was, of course, feeling sick and then it poured preventing us from enjoying our previously planned afternoon on Mike's boat.  And then Alex played soccer on Sunday and may or may not have pulled his hamstring just in time for next weekend's half marathon.  Good times.

It wasn't all lost though-- we had a fabulous Saturday dinner date in Wicker Park at Prasino with our almost married (2 months and counting) friends Tara and Nick.  Oh, and I went for round 2 with the homemade granola.  I made a few tweaks to my previous recipe and I have to say that this one was a step in the right direction.  Check it out!

Healthier Homemade Granola: Part II (with figs, almonds, and coconut)

  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. pumpkin spice
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 3 1/2 Tbs. honey
  • 2 Tbs. canola oil
  • 2 Tbs. real maple syrup
  • 2 Tbs. water
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup wheat germ
  • 2 1/4 cups old fashioned oats (not the instant kind) 
  • 1/4 flaked coconut (I could only find the sweet kind at my store... do they sell it unsweetened anywhere? I may have to try Whole Foods)
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds
  • 3/4 cup chopped dried figs
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.  In a large bowl, whisk together the cinnamon, pumpkin spice, salt, honey, oil, maple syrup, water, and vanilla extract. Add in the wheat germ, oats, coconut, almonds, and figs. Toss well to make sure the mixture coats completely.  Tip: Spray a rubber spatula with a little cooking spray before stirring the granola mixture-- it will prevent the granola from sticking.

Spread the granola out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake until crispy, but not yet browned-- about 35-40 minutes, stirring once or twice in between. Allow to cool completely and store in an airtight container.

Recipe derived from original courtesy of Melissa d'Arabian, FoodTV.com.

Like granola? Here are some other recipes you may enjoy: 

Healthier Granola with Dates & Pecans
Healthy Homemade Granola with Three Seeds, Cherries & Almonds 
Tropical Granola  

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Healthier Homemade Granola

One of my friends at the office is currently pregnant and inconveniently for me, we sit right next to each other.  I hear about all of her cravings and many times end up eating for two myself just because of my location at the desk next door.  There are whoopie pies in the office kitchen-- why don't we split one?  She was craving the chocolate covered graham crackers at Starbucks-- she gives me the second one in the pack.  I've been putting on sympathy baby weight... but I just can't say no!

Thankfully, a few weeks ago she brought in a new food that she was craving: homemade granola.  Hallelujah!  I LOVE granola.  I could eat it everyday, but it's very expensive to buy the pre-made kind and it can be SO unhealthy too-- loaded with fat and processed sugars.  She passed along her recipe and I looked up a few others and created my own healthy hybrid.  It's much more budget friendly and being able to control the ingredients that go in can actually make granola a fairly healthy option for breakfast or a snack when mixed with some Greek yogurt and fruit.  Oats are a whole grain, after all!

 Healthier Homemade Granola (with dates and pecans)

  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 3 1/2 Tbs. honey
  • 2 Tbs. canola oil
  • 2 Tbs. real maple syrup
  • 2 Tbs. water
  • 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup wheat germ
  • 2 1/2 cups old fashioned oats (not the instant kind)
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 3/4 cup chopped dried dates
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.  In a large bowl, whisk together the cinnamon, ginger, salt, honey, oil, maple syrup, water, and vanilla extract. Add in the wheat germ, oats, pecans, and dates. Toss well to make sure the mixture coats completely.  Tip: Spray a rubber spatula with a little cooking spray before stirring the granola mixture-- it will prevent the granola from sticking.

Spread the granola out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake until crispy, but not yet browned-- about 35-40 minutes, stirring once or twice in between. Allow to cool completely and store in an airtight container.

You can use any combination of "add ins" in this recipe by subbing in ingredients for the pecans and dates that I used here.  Some other combinations I am considering trying in the future:
  • Figs and sliced almonds (or chopped pistachios, although they aren't really my favorite)
  • Chopped apricots and sunflower seeds
  • Cranberries, walnuts, and maybe chocolate chips (but would they melt in the baking process?)
  • Pineapple, mango, macadamia nuts, and shredded coconut (like I ate every morning at the Grand Wailea on our Hawaiian honeymoon).  Also wondering if subbing in coconut oil for canola oil would give this a more tropical flavor?
  • Cranberries with pumpkin seeds and walnuts (and maybe subbing in Pumpkin Spice blend for the ginger?)
  • Berry blend (raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries) and sliced almonds
  • Cherries, chopped hazelnuts, and maybe some dark chocolate chips
  • Apples, raisins, and walnuts (or peanuts-- again, not really my favorite)
  • My husband has recently taken a liking to this organic peanut butter granola we found at the store.  I'm betting you could add a few Tbs. of real peanut butter (the kind that is made from just peanuts and salt) and maybe a little brown sugar into the granola mixture and then top it off by adding some crushed peanuts, raisins, and/or chocolate chips and it would be delicious.

Recipe derived from original courtesy of Melissa d'Arabian, FoodTV.com.
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