A Squared: August 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014

Life Lately

I am so happy about the long weekend that's upon us. We don't have any big plans for, but instead are planning to do a lot the normal things we haven't had time for during this crazy busy summer-- like a date at the movies, a trip to the farmer's market, and a lazy brunch at some new (to us) spot in the neighborhood. Life has been busy this summer and for these last couple of weeks, in particular. Three days off is much needed right about now. So, here's a little peek into what's been happening around these parts lately....

Pizza class at Le Pain Quotidien

I joined my good friend Alexis and fellow food blogger and friend Kit for a pizza making class at Le Pain Quotidien bakery in the West Loop. We learned everything about the homemade pizza process-- from hand kneaded dough to fresh sauce to baking on a pizza stone, the class was educational and fun and the pizza was delicious.

One of the best parts of pizza class is, of course, eating it. After our class ended and our pizzas were fired, we all sat down at the communal table to enjoy the fruits of our labor with our classmates and a glass of wine. They even sent us home with the sauce and dough that we made in class so that we could recreate the pizza at home.

After pizza class we headed across the street to CH Distillery, a bar and distillery that I've been anxious to try. All of the cocktails on the menu here are made with spirits straight from the distillery that's visible behind the bar. Cool, right? I ordered the Czech Mate, a tasty combination of cinnamon/spice infused vodka, honey syrup, and grapefruit juice.

Bad Martha Beer Launch Party & Lobster Boil

Last week I boarded an Odyssey cruise boat to celebrate the official launch of Bad Martha beer in the Chicago area. Bad Martha is a newer brewery born on the lovely island of Martha's Vineyard. Previously you could only find their beer in Massachusetts, but as as of last week they are now available in Chicago!

I brought one of my favorite Plus Ones, my bff Alexis. The overcast pre-stormy skies made for a great backdrop, no?

And a few other lovely ladies from the Windy City Blogger Collective (including Samhita, Erin, Sapna, and Kit) were in attendance to celebrate Bad Martha's launch too!

In true New England fashion, Bad Martha hosted a real lobster boil dinner which was the perfect pairing with a cold glass of beer. They had four varieties there for us to sample and my favorite was definitely their IPA. I don't normally gravitate toward an IPA, but this one had just the right amount of hops.

Chicago really is a beautiful city, isn't it?

Business in Phoenix

Earlier this week I was in Phoenix, Arizona for work. Typically these trips don't lend themselves to many fun photos or recaps, but here's a fun fact for you: My boss is a hotel & resort enthusiast. We share a love for architecture, so when he found out that this was my first visit to Phoenix he made it his personal mission to show me a few of his favorite resorts in the area (which happens to be one of his favorite vacation spots).

First up was lunch and a visit to the Arizona Biltmore, a resort designed in 1929 with Frank Lloyd Wright in mind. The grounds and the hotel were equally lovely and the attention to detail was impressive.

And let's not forget the food. This is A Squared, after all. At Frank & Albert's at the Arizona Biltmore I decided that when in the Southwest, order a southwest chopped salad for lunch. I don't know if I was just really starved after a long plane ride, but this tasted like an exceptionally good salad loaded with pulled chicken, corn, black beans, shredded carrots and cabbage, candied cashews, and tortilla strips topped with a mixture of barbecue sauce and a sweet pineapple ginger dressing. I inhaled this salad and have been craving it ever since.

We made a quick stop at the Biltmore Fashion Park mall to pick up some treats for our meeting at  Julia Baker, a high end chocolate boutique. I would highly recommend the red velvet cake truffles or anything with caramel inside.

I stayed at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa. The mountain views were absolutely gorgeous.

And I was totally having a southwest food moment during this quick trip... I love eating like a local even when I'm trapped at a resort. Tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole and a bowl of posole were exactly what I wanted on my last night in town.

Oh, and the tour de resorts didn't end with the first two. We also ventured out to the Hyatt Scottsdale to check out the incredible pools and impressive design-- all cinderblock. And-- of course-- we stopped for a drink at the resort of all resorts, The Phoenician (pictured above). This place has a very 80's luxury feel, but in a good way. While luxury hotels are a bit understated in design today, in the 80's it was all about showing it off and making big statements with the highest quality materials-- like lots of slab marble and gilded details.

Have a safe and happy holiday weekend!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What's For Dinner Wednesday: Sun Dried Tomato & Feta Baked Shrimp

Every couple of weeks my girlfriends and I try to get together for a weeknight girls' dinner. It's a nice time to catch up with each other (without the boys around) and wind down after the workday is over. Sometimes we meet up at a restaurant we've been wanting to try (like our dinner at GT Fish & Oyster), but lately we have been opting to save some money and take turns hosting at our homes instead. I hosted our most recent dinner-- and it was the first at our new place!


One of the things that I love about hosting dinner for my girlfriends is that I get to serve meals that I rarely get a chance to make because of Alex's food allergies or preferences. I love my husband dearly, but sometimes I would really just like to make shrimp and Brussels sprouts for dinner without complaints or fear of anaphylactic shock. So, that's exactly what I did for this girls' night!

I knew I wanted to make shrimp, but because it cooks so quickly you have to time it just right when entertaining. This dish was perfect because I could assemble the entire thing and then since it only takes about 15 minutes to cook, I popped it in the oven when the girls arrived so that it cooked while we poured the wine and settled in for dinner.

This shrimp dish was inspired by one that I tried at Greek Islands in Chicago's Greektown neighborhood. I had this delicious shrimp that was baked in a tomato sauce and topped with feta. It was so simple and flavorful that I have been dying to recreate it. Well, I recently won a recipe contest and now have a pantry full of sun dried tomato products, so I figured that this would be the perfect way to put those ingredients to work together!

The flavors here work so well together-- tangy sun dried tomatoes, bright fresh herbs, salty feta, and dry white wine and lemon, which are the perfect compliments to fresh shrimp. It's part Greek Islands shrimp, part shrimp scampi, and it's just really fresh and flavorful. I can't even tell you how simple this dish is to assemble and it looks so pretty. It is the perfect impressive dish for entertaining that requires pretty minimal prep and cook time. Give it a try the next time you're entertaining and let me know what you think!


  • 1 lb. peeled and deveined shrimp
  • 8.5 oz jar julienne cut sun dried tomatoes (packed in olive oil)
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 Tbs. fresh basil, thinly sliced
  • 1 Tbs. fresh oregano, chopped
  • 2 Tbs. fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 4 oz. feta, crumbled

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Rinse shrimp, pat dry, and add to a large glass bowl. Carefully drain the oil out of the tomato jar and pour over shrimp. Reserve tomatoes for later.

To the bowl, add wine, lemon juice, additional olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Allow to sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes.

Arrange shrimp evenly in a baking dish. I used a ceramic pie plate (with higher edges) and arranged the shrimp in concentric rings, overlapping slightly with the tails up. Pour the remaining liquid from the bowl over the top of the shrimp.

In a separate bowl, combine the sun dried tomatoes, basil, oregano, parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper. Spoon evenly over the top of the shrimp so that it is totally covered.

Bake for 6 minutes and then remove from oven. Crumble the feta evenly over the top of the tomato layer and bake for an additional 8 minutes until the shrimp is pink and cooked through and the cheese melts slightly.

Optional: Broil for 3-5 minutes until the cheese is browned and bubbly.

Serve hot over rice or orzo.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Tastemaker Top 10 with Caitlin of So Hungry I Could Blog

The Tastemaker Top 10 is a collection of 10 questions asked by me and answered by some of my favorite bloggers. Here they will tell you a little bit about themselves, their blogs, and of course, their favorite foods and restaurants. This week's post is a bit of a sequel to last week's Tastemaker feature. Last week we spoke with Sarah from So Hungry I Could Blog and today we have Caitlin, her co-blogger. I love this blog because they feature great recipes, but also because Sarah is here in Chicago (like me) and Caitlin is back in my home state of Rhode Island. Get to know Caitlin today!

Name: Caitlin Saniga

Blog: So Hungry I Could Blog

Location: Providence, RI

Now, tell us about your...

1. Favorite meal, food, or cuisine:
  I love fresh foods and bright, tangy flavors, so Asian and Mediterranean cuisines are some of my favorites. Perhaps my favorite ingredients would paint a better picture: I love cooking with basil, dill, lemon, garlic, ginger, mint, olives, vinegar, rice and other grains, beans, nuts, and whatever produce is in season.

2. Least favorite meal, food, or cuisine:
Rich and creamy foods have never agreed with me, so I steer clear of things like milkshakes and pasta alfredo.

3. Favorite restaurant in your city: I'm very new to Providence, but I've had the pleasure of trying a handful of restaurants so far. For special occasions, I like Birch because its gourmet, local-focused confections and limited seating (15!) around a central bar makes you feel like you're a member of a secret culinary club. For a quick lunch, I like Mama Kim's Korean BBQ, a food truck that serves up gourmet Korean barbecue at a wallet-friendly price.

Favorite restaurant outside of your city: That's a toughie, but I love Natasha's in Floyd, Va. Few things come close to a slice of key lime pie with a never-ending view of farms and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Favorite food memory: On summer days, my family used to drive the station wagon over to Swenson's, a drive-up burger and milkshake spot 15 minutes from our home. Dad was a Swenson's fanatic, and his excitement was contagious for us kids. We'd order burgers, onion rings and Californias (grape soda + ginger ale + lemon wedge + crushed ice), and sit in the back seat with the back door propped up, happily obsessing over every bite.

6. Favorite guilty pleasure food: Double Stuf Oreos. There! I admitted it!

7. Favorite recipe:  This kale and roasted cauliflower with lemon-tahini dressing is pretty wonderful.

8. Favorite kitchen tool, utensil, product, etc.: This onion chopper is the best because crying while chopping onions is one of my least favorite pastimes.

9. Favorite thing about blogging: I love seeing what Sarah and I can come up with. She's always inspiring me!

10. Favorite blogs/blogs that A Squared readers should know about:
  • Design Sponge is the only blog I read every day. I live vicariously through the dreamy photos of food, flower arrangements and displays of home decor.
  • I would eat literally anything that Andrea Bemis makes for Dishing Up The Dirt — a farm-to-table blog. She and her husband grow many of the ingredients she cooks with on their Oregon farm.

Thanks so much for your thoughts, Caitlin!

Do you have a blogger that you'd recommend to be featured on the Tastemaker Top 10? Or are you a blogger that would like to participate? Email me at aasquaredblog@gmail.com and let me know!

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Monday, August 25, 2014

A Birthday Feast at Cicchetti

I still cannot get over what a great job my husband and friends did of planning my 30th birthday celebration-- and keeping it all a surprise. More than a week later I am still on a bit of a birthday high. Part of that certainly has something to do with the amazing birthday dinner we had on Saturday night at Cicchetti in Chicago's downtown Streeterville neighborhood. It was the perfect location to celebrate my big birthday-- The decor is chic and minimal, the menu is a delicious combination of Italian and locally sourced Midwestern ingredients (two of my favorite ways to eat), and it is located just around the corner from my very first Chicago apartment. Full circle, right?

Normally I try to highlight a few similar restaurants in one post, but because of our big group we tried so many things at Cichetti and they were all so delicious that I want to highlight them all. So, today's post is dedicated totally to my birthday meal. Let's get started, shall we?

The menu at Cicchetti is meant for sharing and we took full advantage, ordering several small plates to share with the table. Everyone loves the aged hangar steak carpaccio, garnished with some really tasty crispy cauliflower and a sweet and salty raisin caper aioli. We were also sure to order the charred baby squid, a dish that other friends who have been to Cicchetti previously had great things to say about. The squid was served over creamy polenta with some lightly dressed greens.

We also really enjoyed the La Quercia prosciutto appetizer and I was a particular big fan of the interesting ingredient pairing in this dish. I loved the saltines of this prosciutto with super sweet rhubarb and strawberries, fresh mint leaves, and crunch fava beans. I'm totally inspired by this idea of pairing prosciutto with fruit (other than the classic cantaloupe pairing), so stay tuned for my take on this idea later in the week!

I'm not normally a big pork rind fan, but several of my party guests thought the pork cracklins sounded good so we ordered those as well. Great choice, friends! These were delicious and I couldn't stop eating them. They were airy and crispy with great flavor from fresh rosemary and parmesan. These would be so perfect to snack on at the bar with a good cocktail.

Cicchetti offers three different types of bruschette and for a group our size, our sever recommended an order of 6 with two of each kind. These were not your typical tomato and basil bruschetta-- the ingredient combinations were inventive and fresh and all in all, delicious. There was an ahi tuna with pickled shallots (LOVED those shallots!), a fresh crab salad, and my favorite of the bunch-- pork belly with spicy fennel and golden raisin agrodolce. Agrodolce is a traditional Italian sweet and sour preparation, so this was really delicious with the salty and savory pork belly.

And then there was my absolute favorite of the starters: Nonna's Meatballs. If you've ready any other blogger reviews of Cicchetti, they have likely called out these meatballs as being a meal highlight so I knew we needed to order them. These bite sized meatballs are a perfect combination of pork, veal, and beef served in a flavorful pancetta tomato sauce with a chunk of crusty ciabatta bread. Everything about this dish was spot on-- by far the simplest dish that we ate that night, but one of the favorites among the entire table.

Our server also recommended that we share entrees, but with so many people with different tastes and dietary restrictions at the table we decided to go rogue and each order our own. The saffron risotto caught my eye on the menu and it was even more impressive in person: the bright yellow risotto was rich and creamy, infused with saffron and cooked with melted leeks it had amazing flavor. The dish was topped with a fried farm egg. I think we can agree that a fried egg makes anything better and that was no exception here-- it was a super hearty and satisfying meatless dish.

Alex ordered the braised short rib ravioli, so I made sure to steal a bite of that too. I loved the melty short rib inside the ravioli and although the super fresh tasting tomato sauce on top was very good, it tasted like a bit too much for the rich ravioli. They may have been better suited with a more buttery or brothy sauce.

And finally: Dessert. As if we could possibly eat any more. I had heard so much about Cicchetti's reverse affogato that I had to try it. Creamy coffee gelato is topped with vanilla malted milk and served with cinnamon sugar donuts for dipping. It was delicious together, but I was all about the gelato and Alex gobbled up the donuts so it was also perfect for sharing-- and definitely large enough to share too!

Since I was the birthday girl, Cicchetti also brought out a special birthday surprise for me too. The sundae was a delicious combination of tiramisu gelato topped with fernet branca menta-infused fudge sauce (that's an herby minty Italian liqueur), crunchy pistachio brittle, and rich amarena cherries. This was one of the more simple desserts on the menu, but definitely a special take on a hot fudge sundae. And wow, tiramisu flavored gelato-- such a great idea!

Thanks to Cicchetti and to my parents, husband, and friends for a truly unforgettable birthday dinner!
Cicchetti on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tomato & Avocado Salsa

As I noted yesterday, the past weekend and this week have been totally crazy. Between that and the fact that I'm also preparing for a trip to Arizona for work early next week I have been running around nonstop this week. During weeks like this, my diet usually falls by the wayside-- a big birthday dinner out, pizza and cupcakes at the office, happy hour cocktails, and a beer and lobster boat cruise (more on that later) have all made an appearance this week. And I haven't turned any of it down.

So, for the little time that I have been able to cook at home recently I have been trying to make sure that our meals are quick and healthy. This tomato & avocado salsa definitely fits the bill. There is no cooking required and all you really have to do to prep is chop the ingredients and combine. I love the simple flavors here-- a little sweet, a little spicy-- and the big chunks of avocado, versus a creamy guacamole. I love to serve this salsa on top of grilled fish (like this spiced salmon) or chicken. It's also great on a salad, tacos, or served with chips for dipping, of course.

You can also have fun with mixing in foods you have on hand to change up the flavor of this salsa: black beans, corn, roasted peppers, oranges, mango, pineapple, crumbled cheese, or pomegranate seeds (sounds weird, but it is SO good!) are all great ways to spice up this simple salsa.

What are your go to recipes for a quick and healthy weeknight meal?

  • 1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
  • 1 avocado, diced
  • 1/4 cup red onion, diced
  • 1/2 jalapeno, seeded, ribs removed, and finely diced
  • 1 Tbs. cilantro, finely chopped
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Salt and pepper, to taste 

Gently combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. Serve immediately or cover and chill until ready to serve.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mental Health Day.

Guys, I am exhausted.

I wanted to have a recipe here for you today (like this amazing shrimp that I made for the girls last week), but I am running on empty. My birthday weekend was filled with fun and surprises, but with no laundry done, no groceries purchased, little sleep and even less time for blog post writing and planning. On top of all of that, this week has been crazy busy too so I am having a tough time catching up-- or staying awake long enough to do so.

So, today is a personal day at A Squared. I'll be back soon with our regularly scheduled posts!

Thanks for understanding!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Tastemaker Top 10 with Sarah of So Hungry I Could Blog

The Tastemaker Top 10 is a collection of 10 questions asked by me and answered by some of my favorite bloggers. Here they will tell you a little bit about themselves, their blogs, and of course, their favorite foods and restaurants. This week's post is a first for A Squared: It's a two-parter! Today, we are talking to Sarah of the fun food blog So Hungry I Could Blog. Sarah shares the blog with her friend Caitlin and we'll be hearing her answers to these questions next week... so come back next Tuesday to hear from the other half of So Hungry I Could Blog! Today, meet Sarah:

Name: Sarah Steimer

Blog: So Hungry I Could Blog

Location: Chicago

Now, tell us about your...

1. Favorite meal, food, or cuisine:
Late summer/early fall foods. Chicago gives you the option of hitting a farmer’s market pretty much every day of the week, so I’m spoiled by seasonal produce. Once August and September hit, I’m elbow-deep in heirloom tomatoes, squash, apples, and dark, leafy greens. OK, and cheese.

Favorite restaurant in your city: Lula Cafe! I’ve fallen hard for many a Lula dish, most recently the spring onion and nettle tamales on the brunch menu. And their cocktails? Well, it’s the only restaurant where I actually look forward to waiting for a table (at the bar).

Favorite restaurant outside of your city: I’m a Pittsburgh native, so I have to go with a hometown choice: Mad Mex. Solid Tex-Mex food and margaritas. Now, if you want my favorite ‘burgh restaurant secret, it’s brunch at The Zenith, which doubles as an antique store.

Favorite food memory: Homemade breakfast with the fam! I can’t be sure, but I think 64 percent of my childhood might have included pancakes or French toast and an oldies radio station. Basically, I spent a lot of time covered in maple syrup and knowing Temptations lyrics.

5. Favorite guilty pleasure food: Ice cream, preferably from a cool parlor. I don’t feel even a little guilty.

6. Favorite ingredient (something you love to cook with, or something you see on a menu and know you have to order): Pickled onions. I love tacos, and nothing perfects a taco like some pickled onion highlights (yeah, there are some on that Lula tamale I told you about, too).

7. Favorite recipe: Caitlin and I did a savory jam guide last August, for which I made this quick tomato jam. No special ingredients, no pectin. It paired perfectly with wine and cheese for a movie in Grant Park.

8. Favorite kitchen tool, utensil, product, etc.: A sharp knife. That’s all I ask.

9. Favorite thing about blogging: Caitlin and I have both noted how cooking and blogging can be such a great escape. Plus it’s also a pretty cool way to track of how our tastes and abilities have changed.

Thanks so much for your thoughts, Sarah!

Do you have a blogger that you'd recommend to be featured on the Tastemaker Top 10? Or are you a blogger that would like to participate? Email me at aasquaredblog@gmail.com and let me know!

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Thank You.

I'm feeling a little mushy on this Monday. This weekend, my husband and some of my favorite people pulled off the ultimate surprise: they managed to plan a weekend full of birthday surprises for the Queen of Surprise Hating... a.k.a. Me.

You see, I didn't want/need to do anything big for my 30th birthday. I told my husband months ago that I didn't want to plan anything for myself and that as long as he made a reservation for dinner at a fab restaurant I would be a happy girl. Well, as my big day approached (it was yesterday) I started to get a little nervous that he hadn't given it any thought-- and he totally played along with the whole thing. He was so good at it, in fact, that I basically melted down on Friday night thinking that he had forgotten my birthday all together. And I was punishing him big time.

That went on until about 10 PM on Friday night when I heard a knock at my front door and behind it was my Chicago best friend Alexis along with these balloons and my best friend Meghan and her fiance Will, who flew in from New York City to surprise me! That's when I knew I had been had-- big time. And to my further surprise, it was only the beginning!

So, that night we drank a lot of wine and played some Cards Against Humanity while I calmed myself down and got over the shock of my surprise visitors.

And then on Saturday we headed over to our neighborhood bar Flagship Tavern & Grill for brunch where I devoured a plate of huevos rancheros. In the midst of my meltdown turned shock on Friday night, I may not have eaten as much as I should have. After that, Meghan and Alexis took me downtown for a girls' afternoon of blowouts at Elizabeth Arden Red Door Salon. We were getting prepped for a birthday dinner that evening, which I knew very little about. I was told that Alex made a reservation somewhere downtown for the 5 of us and that we'd be going out for cocktails afterward.

I was super excited when our Uber rolled up in front of Cicchetti, a newer Italian restaurant that's been on my 'must try' list for quite some time now. I was even more excited when they led us into the private dining room where four other good friends were waiting to surprise me-- along with my parents!

I was so touched that everyone came out to celebrate my birthday-- and that they managed to keep the whole thing a surprise for months!


Oh and in case you are interested-- and this is a food blog, so you might be-- dinner at Cicchetti was amazing! With such a big group, we were able to try a ton of items off the menu. I'm planning on writing up a dedicated post about my birthday dinner, so come back for that later this week!

Alexis decided we should head on over to Three Dots & a Dash after dinner. It's an underground tiki bar in the middle of the city and another place that's been on my 'to visit' list. A few more friends joined us there and my mom and dad came along too!

The drinks here take forever to make, but they are so pretty! Mom and I were both drinking the Siboney-- a delicious and potent mixture of dark Jamaica rum, passionfruit, pineapple, and lemon.

On Sunday we were moving (understandably) a bit more slowly, so we kept things low key at our place. My parents came by to see the condo for the first time, the boys played some MarioKart, and we enjoyed a few pastries from Dinkel's for breakfast and a late afternoon pizza party from Pizzeria Serio. Then everyone was on their way-- back to Rhode Island, New York, or just across town. And I took a birthday nap. I am a 30 year old lady, after all.

So, I want to say thank you today-- to Alex for planning an unforgettable weekend even when I was being a brat and doubted that he'd planned anything at all. I am very lucky to have a husband like you! To my Meghan and Will for making the trip out to Chicago (in the home stretch of their wedding planning, no less) and to Alexis for helping them to coordinate the whole weekend. And to all of them for keeping it a secret for such a long time! To my parents for also making a top secret visit to Chicago and for the beautiful birthday dinner. To my other great friends for coming out to celebrate with me-- I'm lucky to have such great friends in this city! To my siblings and friends and everyone else: the gifts, cards, cookies, Facebook messages, shout outs, and texts/calls were amazing and made this weekend so special. Thank you all for the birthday wishes. You know how to make a girl feel good-- and excited about what my thirties have in store!

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