A Squared: February 2015

Thursday, February 26, 2015

COOKGIRL Launch Party at Little Goat

One of the things that keeps me blogging even when life gets busy is the cool experiences that I get to take part in. I was recently invited to an event that turned out to be a total "pinch me" moment and even writing this right now, I feel really privileged to have been a part of it!

The event was the launch party for COOKGIRL, a website dedicated to celebrating female chefs. COOKGIRL kicked off its mission in Chicago, honoring a handful of the city's favorite female chefs and asking a few local female food bloggers to weigh in on their foodie favorites.

image via
So to celebrate the launch of the site, this handful of bloggers, small group of chefs, and a few other members of the media were all invited to an intimate dinner at Little Goat. The dinner was so surreal-- no more than 20 of us in the room and we were rubbing elbows and dining with some of Chicago's most renowned chefs like Carrie Nahabedian (NAHA, Brindille), Mindy Segal (Hot Chocolate), and Zoe Schor (Ada Street).

As if that wasn't already cool enough, we were dining in the private room at Little Goat where chef Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat, Little Goat) and her team were preparing dinner for us in the open kitchen. I've dined at both Girl & the Goat and Little Goat Diner and both were amazing, but being here in this intimate group with chef Stephanie speaking to us about the menu she customized and prepared for us was pretty amazing.

And chef Stephanie's menu did not disappoint. I love her food because it always feels unique, but still approachable. And while Girl & the Goat is one of the hottest reservations in Chicago, the atmosphere is warm and inviting and not stuffy.

We started dinner with a delicious salad served family style: thinly shaved kohlrabi, kale, and fennel tossed with toasted almonds in a ginger dressing. It had a really great smoky flavor and reminded me that I love kohlrabi and should start cooking with it more often!

Known for her use of goat meat in her cooking, chef Stephanie's next course was a generous plate of goat empanadas. Flaky pastry was stuffed with tender goat meat and served warm with radish, queso fresco, and a deliciously creamy miso-harissa aioli.

The next dish was one of my favorites: pierogies stuffed with creamy celery root puree and topped with tangy brown butter kimchee. Give me the whole plate now, please!

For a fish course, chef Stephanie served a single large scallop. It was seared perfectly and served with tart grapefruit segments, avocado, garlic chives, and a spicy Asian sesame oil.

Next up: lamb ribs. How beautiful is this plating? The ribs were fall off the bone tender and were topped with crunchy marcona almonds and a root veggie caponata.

Another favorite dish of the night was a simple vegetable side, but one that I have tried and loved at Girl & the Goat too. This perfectly roasted cauliflower is caramelized and served with pickled peppers, pine nuts, and fresh mint. I love that savory roasted cauliflower with the briny and slightly spicy pickled peppers. So good!

And finally, sauteed shrimp and pork belly served with fried grains and noodles, served with some shaved vegetables in a light tamarind vinaigrette.

Dessert came out in two rounds: the first was a mini citrus pavlova. Crunchy meringue served with blood orange semifreddo (it tasted like cotton candy!), yuzu curd, and candied kumquats.

Along with the pavlova, a selection of Little Goat Bread's signature cookies: "wookie pies" -- chocolate cream filling sandwiched between two little chocolate cakes, s'mores cookies -- my favorite of the bunch, and an only slightly sweet cashew cookie.

It was a really wonderful meal and such an impressive group of ladies-- both the chefs and the women behind COOKGIRL!

A Squared

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What's For Dinner Wednesday: Pancetta Baked Scallops

Sometimes I run out of creative ways to prepare seafood. It's not as versatile as chicken or pork and since I only make fish for dinner once a week at the most, I sometimes feel a little creatively stifled... and end up making the same handful of recipes all the time. Recently though, Alex requested scallops for dinner and I had a flashback of these delicious baked scallops that my mom made once when I was visiting and I decided to try my hand at the recipe.

When my mom sent the recipe I realized that it was very similar to Shrimp DeJonghe, a breaded shrimp dish baked in a garlic wine butter sauce made famous here in Chicago in the early twentieth century. It's a simple, but delicious way to prepare shrimp and works equally well with the scallops in this recipe. Baking and breading it keeps the seafood tender and juicy and infuses some great flavor into it.

The original version of this recipe featured the simple, yet tried and true combination of scallops topped with vermouth, lemon juice, butter, garlic powder, and crushed Ritz crackers. I gave the recipe a little update, first swapping the vermouth for Sauvignon Blanc because I hate buying a whole bottle of alcohol that I won't use when only a little bit is required for a recipe. I then swapped the Ritz crackers for crunchy panko and added fresh garlic and thyme for a punch of flavor in the topping.

The real game changer in this recipe though, is the addition of pancetta. The pancetta is sauteed in the pan before the scallops and the rest of the ingredients are added, so the savory saltiness is rendered into the pan and the scallops cook in it and take on that flavor... it's just delicious. And after baking that pancetta adds a nice crispiness to the tender scallops.

This is a pretty easy dinner to make. We enjoyed it for a Sunday dinner, but it would be a great one to serve at a dinner party as well.

  • 2 oz. pancetta, diced
  • 1/2 lb. scallops
  • 1 Tbs. butter
  • 1/2 Tbs. olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 2 Tbs. grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. lemon zest
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 Tbs. dry white wine *I prefer Sauvignon Blanc in this one

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat a cast iron skillet (or other oven-safe pan) over medium high heat. Add pancetta and saute until golden and crispy. Remove pan from heat and immediately add butter to melt. Swirl in olive oil and set aside.

Wash the scallops and pat dry with a paper towel. Add the scallops to the skillet and place them about 1/2-inch apart.

Ina small bowl, combine Parmesan and remaining 7 ingredients (through white wine). Stir inSpoon the mixture over the top of the scallops and drizzle lightly with olive oil.

Cover and bake for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, uncover and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Optional: Broil for 3-5 minutes for a crispier topping.

Remove from oven and serve hot.

A Squared

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Whirlwind Los Angeles Weekend

After our stint in Las Vegas, Alex and I jetted off to Los Angeles for the wedding of our friends Brad and Erin and a weekend that turned out to be much too short. We arrived from Las Vegas late Friday evening, attended the wedding Saturday evening, and were back in the air on our way home to Chicago on Sunday afternoon. It was a whirlwind that left little time for sightseeing, carefully selected meals out, or the anything else I would normally plan for a weekend getaway. But we got to spend a little time with our old friends and that was amazing.

We had a super late lunch at Yardbird in Las Vegas, so when we landed in LA we weren't super hungry and we hurried out to meet up with our friends at a bar in Manhattan Beach. By the time we were ready to had back to our hotel at midnight, Alex and I were starved. And we made our first ever trip to In-N-Out Burger.

I know, I know... I have been to LA and Las Vegas both a handful of times and have never been to In-N-Out. I'm a slacking food blogger. But since my husband is a junk and fast food aficionado, I figured it was about time that I indulged him. I don't love fast food, but In-N-Out was pretty tasty. Alex loved his Animal Style (definition: the addition of grilled onions to your burger from the not-so-secret menu ) cheeseburger and not being a huge fan of fast food burgers, I ordered off the not-so-secret menu as well and got an Animal Style grilled cheese sandwich. It was almost 1 AM and these sandwiches and some crispy fries hit the spot like no other.
In-N-Out Burger on Urbanspoon

The next morning we slept later than we have in a long time and then ventured out to meet our good friend Julie and her husband Mark for a leisurely brunch. They were staying in an apartment in Venice Beach and invited us to come up their way and hang out in the charming Abbot Kinney Boulevard section of Venice. This stretch of street was full of adorable restaurants, boutiques, and small businesses and reminded me of Wicker Park here in Chicago-- just much warmer.

We met up with Mark and Julie at Feed Body + Soul for brunch and it felt so nice to dine on their patio in February. Feed's brunch menu was made up of American classics given a California makeover-- and they had a really fun cocktail menu and some great deals on brunch cocktails that day. I ordered the Feed Benedict: a lighter, healthier, more California-appropriate version of a traditional Eggs Benedict. And the perfect way to start a day that would surely end with champagne and wedding cake. Two poached eggs sat atop garlicky braised kale and thinly sliced avocado. It was served with a roasted half tomato and hollandaise sauce and was super delicious.  This was the perfect Saturday brunch location.
Feed Body & Soul on Urbanspoon

Oh, and another first on this trip: Blue Bottle Coffee! All my coffee-loving foodie friends have raved about drinking Blue Bottle in San Francisco so when Julie mentioned that there was one just a few blocks up Abbot Kinney I was psyched to try it. Their iced coffee was delicious and I'm planning on dragging my mom and sister to one of the San Francisco locations when we're there later this month.

And after a long brunch, and a few minutes poolside, it was wedding time!

The venue, the weather, and the wedding were all gorgeous-- so southern California perfect. The sun was going down during the ceremony so all of the string lights made the place feel magical.

It was a Valentine's Day wedding and the bride and groom made sure that there wasn't any Valentine cheesiness, but there were a few cute winks at the holiday-- like our place cards, which were mounted on boxes of conversation hearts candy. So cute!

The wedding, in general, had a lot of really cute details and personal touches. When we all moved inside for dinner and dancing, an outdoor bar and a bags game were set up. The perfect way for the guests (like us) from the Midwest and east coast to maximize some outdoor time!

I love these signs, but a few of you saw this on Instagram and commented that the cake placement made my photo read "FAT, drink & be married." LOL.

It was a short (less than) 48 hours with our friends, but so fun to get most of them in the same city and room for a bit. We can't wait to see them for wedding, round 5 in Virginia this spring!

A Squared

Monday, February 23, 2015

Scenes from Las Vegas

Last week I told you about everything that we ate during our stint in Las Vegas (here and here) and man, there is some good food there! This was my fifth visit to Las Vegas, but since I am always there for work this the first where I had more than just an evening of personal time to experience the Strip for myself. So, when the opportunity presented itself this year to spend 2 days of personal time in Vegas with Alex, we decided to take it. And a little R&R and an escape from the frigid Chicago temps was exactly what we needed. Also, two days in Vegas was all we needed before we were ready to move on... this place is weird!

We spent the majority of our first day hanging out poolside at The Wynn. It was unseasonably warm for February in Vegas and since it was unseasonably cold at home, soaking up the sun for a few hours was exactly what we needed. The Wynn is hands down one of the most luxurious resorts in Vegas and their expansive and gorgeous pools didn't disappoint. We ate guacamole and napped in the sunshine and it was perfect.

Even the decor at The Wynn is fabulous. There were beautiful Asian touches throughout the casino celebrating the Chinese New Year.

And the floral displays are always incredible. This is a working carousel decked out completely in flowers... amazing!

On Thursday night we headed to Giada Vegas for dinner and had a little time to kill before the show. The restaurant gave us a $25 credit to use in the casino downstairs in the Cromwell, so we gambled a bit-- because I only gamble when it's not my own money. We came out $28.70 richer-- I call that a win!

After our big gambling win, we headed over to the Mirage to catch the Beatles Love by Cirque du Soleil. We weren't allowed to take pictures in there so this is as much as you're getting, but I can tell you two things: 1. I'm not even a Cirque du Soleil fan (normally they are just too weird for me), but I loved this one: the Beatles music, the stunts, the colors-- it was beautiful. And 2. We went on an off night and the show was far from sold out, so our cheap balcony seats were upgraded to fourth row from the stage. Winning!

Before we departed for LA on Friday evening, Alex and I spent a lot of time wandering the Strip and hopping from casino to casino. Not willing to gamble away too much of our actual money (read: not the free casino dollars from Giada), we were on the hunt for a non-gambling activity... that's a tall order in Vegas.

So we found ourselves at the High Roller at The Linq. It's the world's tallest observation wheel and at 550-feet high it offers some amazing views of the strip and the mountains beyond.

It's a little pricey, but it's a really cool experience. The high roller has a bar you can hit on your up (because Vegas) and it's open until the wee hours of the morning (again, because Vegas). You can even rent out an entire pod and hire one of their bartenders if you're riding with a party.

And while each pod can hold up to 40 people, we went earlier on a weekday and scored our own pod for just the two of us.

The entire ride takes about a half hour. It was a fun way to get a view of the Strip from high above and away from all the crazies that are actually on it. And it was fun to do something a little touristy, but not super cheesy.

A Squared

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Upscale Dining in Las Vegas

Earlier this week I shared some insights on casual dining options from my recent visit to Las Vegas. Today I want to continue on the topic of food (because that's kind of my thing) and tell you about two fantastic upscale dining experiences from my trip. If you're looking for great food, amazing service, or to celebrate a special occasion, these are two restaurants to definitely keep in mind.

AquaKnox, The Venetian
Located in what is commonly known as 'Restaurant Row' at The Venteian, AquaKnox is one of Vegas's premier destinations for seafood. To ensure that they are serving the highest quality dishes, fresh seafood is flown in detail to be prepared in the AquaKnox kitchen. Known for their "global water cuisine," the AquaKnox menu features inventive twists on classic regional seafood dishes. The restaurant is sleek and modern with a huge fishtank and a raw bar situated front and center. I had the privilege of dining here during the first night of my conference and even the banquet menu (which is a slight variation on their traditional menu offerings) was really amazing.

We started the meal with a simple salad of mixed greens and herbs with a light and flavorful champagne vinaigrette.

We had a few choices for entrees, but I knew that seafood was the was to go here. I decided on the prawns. They were huge and perfectly grilled, served in a flavorful herbed butter sauce. They were simple, but expertly prepared. In addition, we shared a few side dishes like the super rich and creamy mashed potatoes, crisp grilled asparagus, and this garlicky assortment of sauteed mushrooms that so tasty and a favorite dish at my table.

To finish things off, we each enjoyed a slice of banana cream pie. The banana cream pie at AquaKnox is not your average pie. Cut in rectangles and more thinly sliced bananas than cream filling, this dessert was complimented by caramelized bananas, rich chocolatey Guinness ice cream, and a little cookie crumble.

AquaKnox doesn't have a big celebrity chef name attached to it like all of the Batali, Bastianich, Lagasse, and Keller-branded restaurants peppered throughout the Palazzo and Venetian properties. The food is just as good as any of those though and because it is a bit more under the radar than the other restaurants, it's slightly easier to get a reservation here so get in on it!
AquaKnox on Urbanspoon

Giada Vegas, The Cromwell
When it worked out that Alex and I would finally be in Las Vegas together with some free time to spend, I knew I wanted to dine at Giada while we were there. I am a huge fan of Giada deLaurentiis and was so thrilled at the idea of dining at her first restaurant that I made the reservation months ago-- before we had even booked our plane tickets. I'm happy to report that the experience didn't disappoint and as expected, the atmosphere, food, and service was flawless.

Before I tell you more, let me say that the one thing that took me by surprise about Giada was the location. The Cromwell is new to the strip and was formerly Wild Bill's Gambling Hall, but has been recently renovated and reopened as The Cromwell. Truthfully, even after the update the casino is kind of a dump and I was surprised to walk through this cheaply done space up to Giada's impeccably designed restaurant. Don't let this deter you from eating at Giada, but just don't be surprised when you walk in... I thought we were in the wrong place!

Now back to Giada Vegas. Like the menu, the restaurant has a very California feel. The palate is a lot of warm colors and earth tones and beautiful material combinations: stone, rattan, wood, and leather. Upon walking in, you're greeted by an expansive open kitchen and antipasti bar showcasing that day's antipasti options. Huge operable windows open on to the strip and the lounge areas and dim lighting make you feel like you're sitting on the deck of some fabulous southern California home. It's upscale, but the atmosphere is inviting new comfortable.

Giada offers a prix fixe tasting menu (complete with souvenir menu and a visit from the amazing looking dessert cart) or a vast a la carte menu, which is what Alex and I decided on. The meal began with the house selection of breads, which right away let me know it was going to be a good meal. Paper thin Parmesan crisps, crunchy breadsticks, and a tiny crock of warm freshly baked rosemary focaccia arrived along with a board of toppings that included fresh pesto, lemon mascarpone butter, briny capers, red pepper flakes, and pink salt. The whole thing was such a fun twist on the standard bread basket and the warm focaccia and the lemon mascarpone butter were out of this world.

To begin our meal we picked two items to share-- the first being one of our favorites: bacon-wrapped dates. These dates were each stuffed with spicy Italian sausage, wrapped in a thin slice of bacon, and finished off with a little Gorgonzola cream. These little bites were a perfect starter and a perfectly simple combination of flavors: salty bacon, sweet dates, spicy sausage, and tangy funky blue cheese.

Next up, we shared the artichoke arancini. I love arancini and Giada's menu offers three varieties of these tasty fried rice balls: a meaty Italian sausage version, a decadent lobster arancini, and the vegetarian option that we ordered. The artichoke flavor was subtle and the arancini (shaped like squares, not balls at Giada) were lightly breaded and perfectly crispy, but not heavy or greasy. They were served with a little marinara on the side for dipping.

For entrees, I was torn between two pasta dishes and asked our waiter for his suggestion. He let us know that the lemon spaghetti was one of Giada's signature dishes, so I went with that one. It was delicious and exactly what you'd expect from Giada's food: simple flavorful Italian food with California flair. Al dente spaghetti was tossed in a light and creamy lemon sauce thickened with fresh Parmesan and a little mascarpone. It was served with two large grilled shrimp and I absolutely loved it. The flavors were simple and flawless.

Alex ordered the pappardelle with pork ragu for his main course. It was a classic dish that didn't disappoint with a thick flavorful tomato sauce filled with chunks of slow cooked tender pork over perfectly cooked pasta.

We also shared a side of the grilled broccoli rabe. I loved the smoky charred flavor of the grilled broccoli rabe and it was dressed with a light and spicy chili vinaigrette.

That was a lot of food and we we were pretty close to full, but both wanted to try something sweet before we left. We decided to share an item on the dessert menu and settled on the lemon bunt cake. The cake was sweet with bright lemon flavor and it was surprisingly light for a bundt cake, which can often be super dense. The cake was topped with a thin layer of dark chocolate icing and a candied lemon slice with a little sweet Chantilly cream on the side. I love that sweet chocolate and start lemon flavor combination and it was a sweet end to a delicious meal.
Giada on Urbanspoon

A Squared
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