A Squared: November 2015

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

10 Last Minute Thanksgiving Appetizer & Drink Recipes

Nothing like a last minute post for all you last minute entertainers, am I right?

If you're hosting the Turkey Day celebration tomorrow, chances are you've planned out the menu, bought your groceries, and are probably even prepping the meal at this very moment. But did you think about how to keep your hungry guests out of the kitchen all day while you're cooking? I am a big proponent of serving an easy and filling appetizer spread for guests to graze on all day (along with a good cocktail), but I also don't think these appetizers should require too much work either... let's be honest, you have enough cooking to do for the big meal! So, here are 10 easy appetizer and cocktail recipes to keep you sane and your guests satisfied on Thanksgiving Day:

Mom's Artichoke Dip  

Bacon-Wrapped Dates 

Holiday Cranberry Lemonade

Cherry, Prosciutto & Parmesan Crostini  

Lemony Dill Dip

Holiday Sangria 

Crostini with Honeycomb & Whipped Ricotta  

Cheesy Pizza Pull Apart Bread 

Creamy Spinach & Roasted Red Pepper Dip 

Greek Grilled Chicken Appetizer with Tzatziki & Red Pepper Pesto

Monday, November 23, 2015

Recent Chicago Restaurant Visits: Kings County Tap

I'm always excited when new and interesting restaurants open up on Chicago's North Side. While River North and the West Loop may get the bulk of the trendy and most high profile new restaurant openings, the north neighborhoods also have their fair share of great places to eat too-- usually a little more under the radar, but not lacking in great food and drinks. And Kings County Tap absolutely falls into that category.

This unassuming bar and restaurant is located in the old Etno Village Grill space right at the big intersection of Wrightwood, Lincoln, and Sheffield near Oz Park. I had frequently walked by while it was under construction this summer and the awesome old cargo train car that they've upcycled into the base of their bar really caught my eye. Well, I'm happy to report that not only is the space rustic and cool, but their menu is equally impressive. This is not your typical Lincoln Park bar-- instead, Kings County Tap features unique craft beers (including a build your own flight option) and selection of cocktails in addition to a menu of modern American cuisine. You'll find lots of classic dishes on the menu, prepared in interesting but still approachable ways. 

Alex and I stopped into Kings County Tap on a recent chilly fall evening for a nice low key dinner date. I love beets, so the beet "tartare" on the small plates menu was right up my alley. Finely diced roasted beets were served up to look like a beef tartare over creamy herbed ricotta and topped with pickled fennel. It was a great combination of flavors and textures and served with soft warm naan flatbread, it was a perfect starter-- or part of a light meal for me.

I wanted a little something extra in addition to these beets, and a side of the white cheddar grits sounded like the perfect thing to enjoy on a cold night. These grits were rich and super creamy with a great hit of sharp cheddar flavor.

Alex is a burger guy and he ordered the Kings County Burger. Their signature burger was topped with a generous amount of melty sharp cheddar cheese, pickled onions, and creamy 1011 island dressing on a toasty bun. The burger was juicy and the toppings provided a good balance of flavors. And the burger came accompanied by a huge mound of crispy french fries with spicy sriracha ketchup. I could not steal enough of these addictive fries off of Alex's plate!

Last, but certainly not least, Kings County Tap features a selection of seasonal pies from Bang Bang Pie Shop for dessert. We couldn't resist a slice of the chocolate peanut butter pie with a chocolate cookie crust, creamy peanut butter mousse filling, and chocolate ganache topping. It was rich and delicious and the perfect sweet ending to this meal!

Editor's Note: Our meal at Kings County Tap was complimentary, however the opinions expressed herein are my own.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Design Upgrade with Minted Art

Remember last summer when A Squared was a buzz with news of our big condo purchase and move? It was such a fun time in our lives and so exciting to finally have a place to call our own. And because I had been dreaming about it and planning for it for so long, the move and the furnishing and decorating that comes along with it all went very smoothly. With the exception of a few odds and ends that arrived later, our place looked almost exactly as I had hoped it would within a few weeks of our move... that is, all but the second bedroom.

As I pointed out in this post, our second bedroom didn't receive a whole lot of love when we moved in. In fact, it quickly became a catch all: an office for the desks we rarely sit at, a home for our old bed so that we can occasionally host overnight guests, and a receptacle for anything and everything we weren't using on a regular basis-- holiday decorations, exercise gear, paperwork, mementos, etc. Well, after living here for over a year we decided it was high time for us to give this room some much-needed love... and thankfully, the kind people over at Minted were there to help us get started!

Minted is one of my new favorite websites filled with creative and thoughtful stationary, gift, and artwork options for just about anyone and any occasion. And their Minted Art section is unbelievable-- with thousands of unique artwork options from independent artists from around the world available in a variety of sizes and with an affordable option for framing available too. They even have a handy tool that allows you to select your favorite pieces and see what they'd look like in various collage arrangements on your wall. So whether you're looking for photography, a fabulous quote, abstract art, or something more custom, the selection here will truly impress you... and you'll have a hard time narrowing down your top picks! I had about 12 items in my cart for a week before I could pare it down to the three pieces I ended up selecting.

While the second bedroom is still very much a work in progress, I knew I wanted it to have a whimsical city theme. The room has soft gray walls with white trim and it's an interior bedroom and since there's not tons of light coming in, it was important to me that the artwork we selected be light and bright-- and to all be framed in basic white frames so that they pop on those walls. And while I had a difficult time making my ultimate selection, the one piece I knew I wanted right off the bat was one called The Fountain by Chicago artist Morgan Ramberg. The illustration is inspired by Buckingham Fountain and I loved her sweet and whimsical interpretation of this classic Chicago landmark.

The second piece we decided on was the Polka Dotted States of America by Jessica Steury. This adorable map of the United States is made up of a variety of gray polka dot patterns and can be customized with a red heart for wherever you live. I loved giving a subtle nod to our favorite city with this piece!

The final piece we selected was the Alphabet for a Better Life print by Serenity Avenue. This sweet print showcases the alphabet with inspirational phrases like "Be kind" and "eXpress yourself." It can be customized with a name if you'd like and is available in three colors-- I selected the seafoam because I liked how it complemented the colors in The Fountain print.

And if you're thinking that these art pieces seem fit for a nursery, then you would be right... A Squared is becoming a trio and we're expecting our first baby this spring! We are very excited and a bit overwhelmed by it all... Being new parents in the city with a big Golden puppy who is terrified of children is a bit daunting. Any tips from you parents of both children and dogs would be much appreciated! Now that we are almost halfway through it (not sure when that happened) I'm getting into nesting mode and so grateful to Minted for giving me the little push that I needed to get started on this little one's room. And I can't wait to show you what these pieces look like hanging on the wall in the finished room!

Editor's Note: Complimentary products were provided by Minted in order to facilitate this post. The opinions expressed herein, as always, are my own.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

What's For Dinner Wednesday: Butternut Squash Mac & Cheese

Mac and cheese is probably one of my all time favorite comfort foods. Pasta and cheese are two of my favorite foods, so putting the two together in one dish is pretty much the pinnacle of food happiness for me.

Given the opportunity, I could eat mac and cheese all the time save for the diabetes, heart attacks, and obesity that accompany a diet like that. With that in mind, I'm always looking for ways to make my favorite foods healthier-- and when I find a good recipe, I always keep it on hand for when I need a comfort food fix. So when I discovered a Cooking Light recipe for mac and cheese with a secret healthy ingredient (that also happened to taste great) a few years ago I tried it almost immediately.

While I have been tweaking the recipe with my own updates every time I have made it, the basis of this recipe is what makes it so special: pureed butternut squash creates a thick and velvety sauce that's slightly sweet, but very mild in flavor-- and so much better for you than a cream-based sauce. Whisk in a flavorful cheese like sharp cheddar (or maybe gruyere) and you've got a creamy cheese sauce perfect for a big pan of baked mac and cheese. I like to add fresh sage to the crispy breadcrumb topping, which complements the flavor of squash really nicely. And not only is it a rich and creamy comforting dish, but butternut squash has so many nutrients that this is a dish that's secretly good for you too!

I made this mac and cheese on Halloween while it poured outside and it was a perfect dinner for a night in. Also, it was made with Halloween-shaped pasta-- hence the odd flecks of black you might see in the photos of the finished product above.


  • 1 lb. butternut squash, peeled and cubed
  • 1 1/4 cups fat free low sodium chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 cups skim milk
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 Tbs. fat free cottage cheese
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper 
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg  
  •  8 oz. grated sharp cheddar
  • 1/2 cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese, divided
  • 1 lb. uncooked short cut pasta
  • Cooking spray
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 2 Tbs. fresh sage leaves, chopped
  • 1 Tbs. fresh parsley, chopped
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Combine squash, broth, milk, and garlic in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and simmer until squash is fork tender, about 25 minutes. Remove from heat.

Place the squash mixture in a blender. Add cottage cheese, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Blend until smooth and no large chunks remain. Pour blended squash mixture into a large bowl. Stir in the cheddar and half of the Parmesan. Stir until combined and cheese has melted into the liquid.

Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and fat. Drain well. Add pasta to squash mixture, and stir until well coated. Spread pasta mixture evenly into a 13 x 9-inch baking dish prepared with cooking spray.

Meanwhile, heat 1/2 Tbs. olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add panko and cook for 2 minutes or until golden brown, stirring frequently. Stir in sage and saute for another minute. Remove from heat and stir in parsley and remaining Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle evenly over the hot pasta mixture. Lightly drizzle the remaining 1/2 Tbs. olive oil over the top.

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until brown and bubbly.

Editor's Note: Recipe based on original recipe by Cooking Light.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Recognizing National Pepper Month with SABRE

Did you know that November is National Pepper Month? I'm teaming up with SABRE today to bring you two ways to recognize the pepper this month: One is a spicy (and sweet!) Thanksgiving side dish recipe and the other is a reminder about self-defense and the power and convenience of SABRE pepper spray.

As many of you likely know, I'm a Chicago girl. It's a city that is infamous for its crime, though the overwhelming majority of that crime occurs in certain portions of the city. That's not to say, however, that the quieter neighborhoods are 100% safe. In fact, my little corner of the city has seen a rash of muggings and robberies over the past few months, leaving me searching for a way to defend myself-- especially as the nights get darker and I'm walking home from the train or out with my puppy alone.

I haven't carried pepper spray since college, but given the state of my neighborhood and the fact that it's National Pepper Month I'm now carrying the SABRE Kuros!TM Pepper Spray with Quick Release Key Ring in my pocket. SABRE has 4 decades of personal safety experience so if there's a brand I'd trust to carry in my pocket our purse, it is this one. And the Kuros!TM is small and sleek and can connect right to my key ring, so it's always at hand if I need it. It's practical, easy to use with a convenient finger grip that ensures you're pointing in the proper direction, has a 4-year shelf life, and it's the #1 brand of pepper spray trusted by police worldwide. And while I hope I am never in a position where I need to use pepper spray, it's comforting to know that I have it with me and that it's user-friendly enough that even in a moment of extreme panic I'll be able to defend myself without confusion.

image c/o SABRE

Wondering how to properly use the Kuros!TM? According to the experts at SABRE, you place the pepper spray in your palm and wrap your index, middle, ring and pinky fingers around the spray. Use your thumb to press down and deploy the spray. See the photo above for what it looks like and make sure that you're protected when you're out and about!

And as I mentioned earlier, it's National Pepper Month so we are honoring the pepper in a second way today too: in addition to being a key component in self defense, it's also the secret weapon in this Thanksgiving side dish recipe.

This roasted squash is a simple, but super flavorful holiday side dish. Acorn and butternut squash are roasted in a sweet glaze of butter, maple syrup, and brown sugar with just a touch of cayenne for heat. Sliced Calabrian chiles are added to the mix for some extra spicy depth (and because they're pretty!) along with chopped pecans for crunch. The result is perfectly caramelized squash with a rich flavor that's one part sweet and one part heat. The perfect way to spice up your Thanksgiving table!

Maple Pepper Roasted Squash


  • 2 acorn squash
  • 1 large butternut squash
  • 2 Fresno chiles, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 2 1/2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • 2 Tbs. light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Rinse the exterior of the acorn squash well and pat dry. Cut the stem end off and slice in half from the stem end to the pointed tip. Scoop out seeds and membranes from both sides and discard. Slice each squash half in half lengthwise, cutting parallel to the ribs in the exterior of the squash. Slice each quarter crosswise into 1/2-inch wide slices. Add to a large mixing bowl.

Peel butternut squash and slice in half lengthwise. Remove seeds and membranes from the squash cavity and cut into 1-inch pieces. Add to acorn squash slices in the mixing bowl.

Add sliced chiles and pecans to the squash mixture and set aside.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a medium microwave-safe glass bowl. Whisk in the following six ingredients, through cayenne pepper until well combined. Pour over the squash mixture and toss well to coat.

Spread the squash mixture out on a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, remove and stir the mixture, then roast for an additional 15-20 minutes until squash is fork tender and golden brown.

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Travel Tuesday: Dining in Bonita Springs, Florida Part 1

Travel season has finally come to a close-- and I'm happy to say that it ended with a mini-vacation to Bonita Springs, Florida to celebrate the gorgeous wedding of a good friend as well as Alex's and my fourth wedding anniversary.

While I'm relieved to be on the ground for a while and not visiting Chicago O'Hare so regularly for a while, it was nice to squeeze in one last trip that was relaxing and not work-related. And 90 degrees and sunny at the beach in late October didn't hurt either.

Bonita Springs is located on the southwestern coast of Florida between Fort Myers and Naples. It's a quieter area to visit since it's less of a vacation destination and more of a retirement and second home destination. So, if you're looking for a more laidback spot for vacationing this is a great for spending time on the beach, the golf course, or relaxing at the pool-- and for eating, of course-- Bonita Springs is a great option!

Oh, and there's an abundance of wildlife here including manatee zones in some of the inland waterways and this adorable (and surprisingly fast moving) tortoise that we spotted in the beach parking lot on our way to our car!

Alex and I got to eat our way through Bonita Springs during the few days that we were there, making sure to sample plenty of seafood. There are a lot of great dining options in Bonita-- and today, I'm sharing a few great places to dine if you find yourself in the area. Today's post is all about brunch, lunch, and snacking. Come back next week for dinner!

Coconut Jack's
Coconut Jack's was one of the first places I identified as a 'must dine' when I was researching this trip. It got a huge number of excellent online reviews and its fun laidback atmosphere and vast menu of seafood favorites made it the perfect location for our first lunch in Bonita after arriving at the airport. It's a huge restaurant with a giant tiki deck situated right on the water, perfect for watching the super active jumping fish, turtles, and birds native to the area. We were so happy to sit out there a soak in the sunshine after having been in cold Chicago just a few hours earlier.

Fried coconut shrimp is not something that I typically eat in my "real" life, but it's one of my favorite vacation foods to splurge on. In fact, I'm pretty sure the last time I ate it was in Hawaii on our honeymoon. So, naturally when I saw it on the menu at Coconut Jack's (and listed as one of their signature dishes) I decided to go with those with a side of crispy sweet potato fries. The shrimp was a really good size and perfectly crunchy, served with a side of creamy coleslaw and a sweet raspberry and mango dipping sauce.

Alex loves scallops and opted for Coconut Jack's scallop basket, which was served in a similar fashion to my shrimp: a huge portion of seafood on top of crispy fries with a side of coleslaw. He ordered his scallops blackened and they were nice and spicy and still super moist. The scallops were also served with traditional spicy cocktail sauce and Coconut Jack's creamy house remoulade sauce for dipping.

Coconut Jack's was exactly what we were looking for for lunch that day-- and I can imagine would be a really fun place for fruity cocktails and a relaxed dinner in the evening too!

Green Cone Cafe
After a decadent dinner on Friday evening (more on that later), Alex and I were in the mood for something sweet, so we stopped by the Green Cone Cafe. Green Cone serves up tons of different ice cream desserts and coffee drinks. It's also conveniently located right next to the movie theater in case you need a sweet treat after catching a movie!

I'm all about anything pumpkin-flavored, so I was sold on the pumpkin ice cream as soon as I spotted it in the case. It had a nice creamy consistency and a great cinnamon and pumpkin flavor. I also opted for a little hot fudge on top because pumpkin and chocolate is one of my favorite dessert flavor combinations.

The Fish House
For Saturday lunch, Alex and I were looking for an option similar to Coconut Jack's: a casual atmosphere with a seafood-focused menu. This time though, Alex had one stipulation: the restaurant needed to serve Key lime pie. So, I did my homework and came up with The Fish House, which is actually located just across the street from Coconut Jack's in a very similar waterfront location. It was super hot that afternoon, so we opted to sit in their screened-in porch where there was live music playing and we could watch the boats and paddleboarders float by.

Not only did Alex get a restaurant that serves Key lime pie for lunch, but they also had one of his all-time favorite seafood dishes on the menu: a lobster roll. A big crusty roll was filled with chilled Maine lobster and diced celery mixed in a creamy herbed aioli. The aioli was used sparingly-- exactl how it should be used and the lobster was left in big meaty chunks.

I ordered one of my other seafood favorites-- the crab cakes. These crab cakes are simply seasoned and made with lump crabmeat and panko and then grilled. They're served with a wonderful fresh pineapple salsa that's both sweet and spicy and creamy spicy remoulade, which are both nice complements to the richness of the crab cakes. I opted for sweet potato fries on the side and these fries were seriously good: thick cut, crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside.

And of course, we finished our meal by splitting a slice of Key lime pie. Their pie is housemade with a buttery crust and creamy tangy filling. It's the perfect dessert to enjoy in Florida!

We got a late start to the day on Sunday after the wedding, so brunch was definitely in order. Poached is a local breakfast and lunch spot featuring an extensive menu of egg, pancake, and French toast dishes in addition to lunch sandwiches and salads. And bottomless coffee, of course.

Alex went with a breakfast sandwich-- the perfect post-wedding brunch. I opted for the healthier Garden Omelet, filled with broccoli, mushrooms, onions, spinach, tomato, and peppers. I ordered hashbrowns on the side, which were less than healthy but really delicious-- dotted with onions and crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.

Come back next Travel Tuesday for a spotlight on two upscale dinners out in Bonita Springs!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

What's For Dinner Wednesday: Easy Baked Caprese Orzo with Chicken

Life is finally starting to quiet down around here and I could not be more thankful. It's been so nice to have a stretch of a few days with no real plans to just get back to normal again. I'm still feeling super busy just trying to catch up on all of my daily routine things like cleaning, laundry, and errands that I neglected during my whirlwind of travel... And it isn't leaving tons of time to experiment in the kitchen as I like to do. These time constraints have helped me flex my creative muscles in a different way though. And I've become an expert in shortcut cooking recently.

If there are three qualities I want in any dinner, it's that I can make it ahead of time, it's all conveniently made in one dish (read: casserole sans weird canned soups), and that it have big bold flavor. This dinner recipe meets all of that criteria and it gets bonus points for featuring one of my favorite flavor profiles: the classic Italian trifecta of tomato, basil, and mozzarella.

This baked orzo comes together quickly- especially if you utilize a few key shortcut ingredients. A precooked rotisserie chicken, jarred pesto sauce, and a bag of shredded mozzarella will cut your prep time drastically without sacrificing flavor. You could make this a day ahead, even further ahead and freeze it, or put it together on a weeknight for a quick 30-minute meal.


  • 2/3 cup dry orzo
  • 1 cup cooked chicken, cubed or shredded *A rotisserie chicken works nicely here.
  • 1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
  • 1/4 cup red bell pepper, diced
  • 1/4 cup prepared pesto
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella, divided
  • 3 Tbs. grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a small baking dish by lightly coating with olive oil or cooking spray.
Cook orzo according to package directions until al dente. Drain and transfer to a large mixing bowl. 

To the mixing bowl, add chicken, tomatoes, peppers, pesto, and 3/4 cup mozzarella. Stir well to combine all ingredients. Spread into prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the top with remaining mozzarella and the grated Parmesan.

Bake for 15 minutes or until cheese is brown and bubbly. Serve warm.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...