A Squared: November 2016

Friday, November 25, 2016

At 7 Months: 10 Baby Things We're Loving Lately

It's been a while since I checked in on the mommy front, so figured it was about time! Hannah has grown so much and isn't a fragile little newborn anymore. She's so giggly and curious and affectionate... she's a little person now and we are having so much fun with her! It's also been amazing for us to see how much has changed with her in just the past few weeks. She's scooting around (only backwards so far, which is really funny), enthusiastically eating cereal and fruit and veggie purees, chatting away, teething (ugh), and sleeping through the night almost every night... except for a few recent ones where she's been awakened by teething pain. And with all of these changes in Hannah, I've got a new batch of favorite baby things to share with you today!

Here's a little rundown of what this mommy (and her baby) have been loving lately-- and seeing as today is Black Friday and Cyber Monday is approaching, consider this a holiday shopping list for any new moms, moms-to-be, or babies in your life too!




1. OXO Tot On-The-Go Drying Rack with Bottle Brush - This was so helpful on our recent trip to Boston! The brush comes apart and tucks neatly inside the drying rack, which folds in half into a compact little package that's easy to pack. This is perfect for drying bottles and pump parts that have been handwashed at a hotel.
2. Chewbeads Perry Necklace - It seems like Hannah has been teething for months, but for the last few weeks especially she's been putting everything in her mouth-- including my jewelry. Chewbeads must have been invented by a mom because they're really ingenious. Wear one of these discreet necklaces anywhere and your baby has a teething option readily available.
3. Stokke Tripp Trapp High Chair Complete Bundle - This is not an inexpensive high chair, but I'd consider it an investment. It looks cool (a plus since it is now front and center in my dining area), is well made, can be pulled right up to the table so Hannah can eat with us, and will grow with my child from infant high chair to toddler and child seats.
4. Sassy Ring O' Links - This is the simplest cheapest thing, but so great that I bought a second one after receiving one at my baby shower. These rings are always in Hannah's hands-- one of her favorite things to hold and chew on. They're also great for hooking toys to the car seat, hanging a purse or blanket off the stroller, and so small they can travel anywhere easily.
5. Beaba Babycook Baby Food Maker - While I had always planned to make Hannah's baby food from scratch, my initial plan was to use my own appliances to do so. Another mom friend with toddlers gave me her Babycook that she no longer needed and I have to say, I love it. It's so easy to fill with cubed produce, add water, steam, and then blend all in one vessel. And Hannah loves the food!
6. Skip Hop Lion Bandana Buddies Activity Toy - I picked this lion up as an impulse buy, but it has come to the forefront as one of Hannah's favorite toys. Even before she was as interactive as she is now, this lion could make her smile and laugh with all of it's different textures and noises. It's also a perfectly approachable size for baby.
7. Burt's Bees Baby Essential Organic Cotton Bibs - Since she's teething and also upright more often than not these days, Hannah drools and throws up pretty much all day long. In order to salvage her shirts, she's almost always sporting one of these bibs. They're made of the soft 100% cotton that I love from Burt's Bees products and most importantly, they're machine washable!
8. Ergobaby 360 Baby Carrier - Around 5 months old, Hannah decided she was all set with riding in the stroller. We had the Ergobaby 360 in her closet since before she was born and on a whim, took it with us on a visit to an apple orchard. She LOVES riding in this thing-- especially because she face outward and can see the world around her! I carry her around all the time in this now-- at the grocery store, on family walks, at the farmer's market... and unless she's super tired or cranky, she is always kicking her legs in excitement, smiling, and making friends with total strangers. And as the parent carrying her, I have to say it's a pretty easy system to put on, adjust, and it hasn't killed my back yet.
9. iPlay Solid Brim Sun Protection Hat - Unless you live in the south or are planning a trip somewhere warm soon (in which case, I am jealous), you may not have immediate use for this hat. However, on summer walks and on our trip to Boston this hat was in heavy rotation. It's soft and easy to pack and it's adjustable to snugly fit multiple head sizes (even big noggins like Hannah's) and it's wide brim and UPF 50+ material help protect your little one from harmful UV rays.
10. Evenflo Exersaucer Jump & Learn Jumper - Hannah is obsessed with this thing. Even before her feet could touch the ground in it, she loved sitting in the seat and interacting with all of the toys and sounds on it. Now that she's a little bigger and learning to balance, she's always excited to jump around in here, plus it gives her a higher vantage point than she's used to when playing on the floor so it's a nice change of pace for her to be able to see more of "the world" around our house too!


You may also like...
My Top 10 New Mom Must Haves
Our 10 Favorite Books for Story Time
Our Favorite Things at 11 Months

Thursday, November 17, 2016

How to Help: 10 Charities Fighting Hunger

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I have always refrained from posting about politics on the blog and don't plan on starting now. That's not what A Squared is about. That said, it can't be ignored that a good part of America seems to be feeling frustrated, scared, angry, confused, and helpless... and that's no good for anyone. It's had me thinking a lot for the past several days about what I can do and what we can all do to feel a little less helpless-- by helping. Not to get too spiritual on you, but Ghandi once said "be the change you wish to see in the world" and that's what I'd like to do. 

In the spirit of being helpful, doing something, and with the holiday season upon us I wanted to do something a little different on the blog today. So if you've got the itch to help someone out or to make a difference, here are 10 charities you might consider donating your resources to-- that's money or time. All of these charities are aimed at fighting hunger and promoting physical and financial health through food in the US and abroad. This is a food blog, after all. ;)

Feeding America - The largest hunger relief network in the United States, working with a variety of charities and organizations to feed hungry Americans.
Meals on Wheels - A national program dedicated to delivering nutritious meals to senior citizens, specifically to those in need or in isolation.
Heifer International - Using the "teach a man to fish" philosophy, Heifer allows donors to gift animals to those in need, providing a sustainable source of food and income.
Greater Chicago Food Depository - 1 in 6 Cook County residents asks the GCFD for assistance each year. Donate funds or food and help feed your Chicago neighbors in need.
Feed the Children - This organization feeds over 263,000 hungry children around the world every day in addition to providing funding for long term solutions like clean water, healthcare, and education.
Action Against Hunger - Action Against Hunger provides a variety of services to the global community including hunger relief, clean water, hygiene assistance, food safety, and emergency response.
The Hunger Project - A global organization that empowers individuals and communities to develop their own sustainable strategies for overcoming poverty and hunger.
Food for the Hungry - Sponsor a child via this Christian-based organization that helps fight hunger in some of the world's most vulnerable areas, providing physical and spiritual healing.
God's Love We Deliver - Based in New York City, this organization delivers nutritious meals to patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other serious illnesses who are homebound or unable to cook for themselves.
No Kid Hungry/Share Our Strength - This campaign not only helps to feed hungry children, but also educates families on how to cook affordable nutritious meals too.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Dining in Boston

If you follow me on Instagram, you know that a few months ago (gah! It takes so long to get around to posting these days) my family and I returned to my old stomping grounds in Boston for a friend's wedding. It has been about 8 years since we lived there and almost as long since I was last there to visit.


To say that things (in my life and in the city of Boston) have totally changed since then is an understatement. It was pretty crazy to come back to the city after all this time and stay just blocks from my old apartment with my husband (who was the boyfriend that back then convinced me to leave my beloved Beantown for Chicago) and with our little baby fresh off her very first airplane ride.


The weekend was a whirlwind and Hannah was a champ while we carted her around the city on a fraction of the sleep she is accustomed to getting. And while we weren't closing down the bars like we were when we once lived in Boston, we still managed to enjoy our time in the city-- checking out a few old favorites and some new ones too! We spent most of our time in the South End and the Back Bay, which was where I spent the majority of my time when I lived there too. The neighborhoods have changed a lot, but they still have that same charm that I fell in love with when I lived there too.

Above: Clery's namesake (and scene of our first date) and my old apartment!


Picco
South End

We arrived at our hotel on Friday afternoon completely starving with a baby desperate to take a nap. So, while I hung out in a dark hotel room with a sleeping Hannah, Alex ventured out to get us some much needed food. He headed over to Picco to pick up some delicious pizza for us and it was just as good as I remembered. Picco is a staple of Boston's South End, located on Tremont Street since back when the South End was still up and coming. They have stuck around because their pizza is amazing and their gelato may be even better.


Picco serves a simple, but well executed menu that updates seasonally, which (in my opinion) is always the way to go-- ensuring that you're enjoying variety and the best produce. When we dined on Picco pizza this summer, I had a delicious vegetarian option topped with grilled broccoli, peppers, and onions, Green Goddess sauce, and fresh herbs. They were generous with the veggies (which had some nice sweetness and char from the roasting process) and the sauce added a great punch of flavor. Right now their menu features pumpkin ravioli and a Brussels sprout & butternut squash pizza. I'd go back to Boston again just to order that!


Flour Bakery & Cafe
Back Bay

When I was a Bostonian, Flour was one of my favorite spots for a weekend coffee (and probably a pastry too) in the South End. It was buried deep in the South End on Washington Street though, so I only made it there when I was up for a good walk or when it was time for a root touch-up (as it was conveniently located next to my hair salon). Fast forward to our recent visit and I learned that there was a newer Back Bay location now too. I was excited to give it a try and also happy for my 22-year old self's wallet that it didn't exist when I was living 3 blocks away. Hello, morning routine and subsequent debt! Since Hannah is an early riser-- especially when she's sleeping away from home-- we had the perfect opportunity to walk the neighborhood Saturday morning and make a trip over to Flour's Back Bay location for breakfast.

Even early on a Saturday morning, Flour was bustling. This location is long and narrow with a handful of tables in the front of the store and some bar-style seating in the smaller area in the back. We found a corner back there that would more easily accommodate Hannah's stroller and then perused the amazing selection of baked goods at the counter. Ordering here feels chaotic and disorganized, but their staff knows their stuff and clearly has it all under control.


Alex ordered one of Flour's homemade "pop tarts." This was not your standard toaster pastry. Buttery flaky pastry dough was filled with tangy berry preserves and drizzled with icing. Everything about it tasted so fresh and decadent enough to be dessert... which is exactly how Alex likes his breakfast! Oh, and the freshly squeezed orange juice? Also delicious.


Completely forgetting that I had a veggie pizza for dinner the night before, I went with the vegetable breakfast pizza and don't regret the decision at all. It looks like a run of the mill spinach pizza from this vantage point, but once you cut into this personal pizza you'll find a cooked egg in the center under that melty cheese. It had a great chewy housemade crust and was a super satisfying breakfast. Also, kudos on the cold brewed coffee too!


Abby Lane
Theatre District

Abby Lane is a new-to-me restaurant located in Boston's Theatre District. My parents and sister came into town on Saturday morning to babysit for Hannah while we attended a wedding that evening, so I was on the hunt for a good lunch spot for all of us. After doing a quick search online, Abby Lane kept popping up and seemed to tick all of my boxes: it was nearby, casual and family friendly, with a solid menu of recognizable and more creative twists on American dishes. Decision (and reservation) made!


One of the best things about dining with my dad is that no matter how hungry (or not) you are, he's very serious about ordering appetizers for everyone to share. Even if nobody is interested, a bowl of spinach dip will inevitably end up on the table. This lunch was no exception and we started our meal with an order of the Showtime Nachos. Nachos might be one of my favorite bar snacks, so I was pretty excited about these and they lived up to the hype. The chips themselves were seasoned with a savory and slightly spicy dry seasoning and then topped with tons of melty cheese. The nachos were topped with black beans, pico de gallo, tangy pickled onions (one of my favorite additions to the plate), and sprinkled with a little queso fresco. They were then topped with a generous amount of guacamole, crema, and a smooth salsa for dipping. I loved that these nachos were full of different flavors and that they tasted fresh, not greasy or heavy. We opted to get ours without meat, but you can add chicken, bacon, or steak to these too.


Alex and I both decided that since we were back in New England, we needed to get a lobster roll fix before we headed home. Abby Lane's lobster roll begins with a really thick brioche roll that's buttered and toasted, which is the ideal foundation for a classic lobster roll. Their lobster filling was more along the lobster salad than straight buttered lobster line, but it was very good-- served very cold with just enough mayo, celery, fresh herbs, and generous chunks of lobster meat. Alex ordered a side of fries with his sandwich, but I went with Abby Lane's eggplant fries and they were totally addictive! The eggplant was sliced like a fry and deep fried in an airy crispy breading. They were served with ketchup and a tangy aioli for dipping.


Stephanie's on Newbury
Boston Logan International Airport

I wasn't planning on having any other restaurant reviews to share with you, but after a 4+ hour delay we became very familiar with the vendors in Logan's Terminal B. Since we knew we'd be around for a while, Alex and I decided to find a place for a real meal and thankfully Stephanie's-- a familiar name-- was just a few gates away. The original Stephanie's is located on Boston's famed Newbury Street and is an institution there (now with locations in Southie and the South End too)-- with tables filled with tourists and locals alike all day long. They're known for upscale comfort food with an emphasis on New England classics. And that sounded like exactly what we needed (along with a big glass of rose!) while we settled in for a long night of waiting.


Alex is a huge fan of New England clam chowder so it was no surprise that this caught his eye on the menu. Stephanies' chowder is thick and rich and made with hearty chunks of potatoes and local clams. The chowder also had great smokiness from the addition of bacon, which (IMHO) should be included in all clam chowders. Garnished with a little fresh chive, it was definitely a comforting bowl of chowder!


I'm a sucker for a crab cake, so I went for the Stephanie's crab cake sandwich. Good crab cakes are delicious, but bad ones are just terrible so I am always a little skeptical about ordering them. Thankfully, this one lived up to the hype! The crab cake was nice and crispy on the outside and filled with sweet meaty crab (and not filler). It was served simply with a remoulade sauce on a toasty brioche roll. I ordered mine with a side of crispy sweet potato fries and it was also served with a tiny cup of coleslaw to round out a perfectly New England plate.



Berkshire Farms Market
Boston Logan International Airport

So I have to admit that although being stranded at Logan for 4+ hours sucked, we were at least presented with some really solid dining options while there. Terminal B is also home to Berkshire Farms Market, a little grab-and-go market that sells small batch and locally sourced items from producers in the Berkshires to Boston. So instead of getting a bag of pretzels from the airport newsstand, you can head here for everything from granola to chocolate to smoked Gouda.


Before we boarded our late night flight, I picked up a few muffins from the Berkshire Farms Market bakery case. They were selling blueberry and morning glory muffins freshly baked at the South End Buttery, one of the best bakeries in my old neighborhood. We didn't get a chance to get there during our visit, so it was great that we could have a taste of the Buttery on our first morning back home.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

My 10 Favorite Shortcut Ingredients

It's no secret to regular readers of this blog that I am a big proponent of homemade food and real ingredients. That's the kind of food I grew up eating (save for the many blue boxes of mac and cheese that we went through... and that I still love), the food I grew up learning how to cook, and it's the kind of food I prefer to make for my family and hope that my child(ren) will grow up loving too. Cooking with real ingredients is healthier, more flavorful, and oftentimes more economical as well.

That said, it's also more time consuming to cook this way. And as someone who has been pregnant or mom to a little baby for a year now, I haven't had nearly the time or energy to cook in the way that I'd like. So I have spent many of the past 14+ months coming to terms with the fact that it's okay to make a few shortcuts every now and then... I'm not buying TV dinners (yet), but I have found a few shortcut ingredients that make getting dinner on the table every night just a little bit easier. Here are my favorites:

1. Giovanni Rana pastas - These are some of the best quality prepared filled pastas I have ever tried. They typically cook in a quick 2-3 minutes, which helps dinner come together in a flash. They're available with tons of different fillings, but I'm most partial to the classic spinach & ricotta, the earthy mushroom, sweet butternut squash, and the smoky uncured bacon & mozzarella ravioli varieties. Just add sauce (or even just some sautéed veggies and olive oil) and a satisfying one bowl dinner is ready.
2. Taylor Farms Chopped Salad Kits - Bagged salads are a given when it comes to easy and healthy meal shortcuts, but these chopped salad kits take it to the next level (I hate that phrase, but it's true). Each chopped salad includes unique pre-washed ingredients like kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and brocolli paired with delicious mix-ins like nuts, seeds, cheese, and a dressing. My favorite is the Southwest Chopped Salad. I just add some diced avocado or shredded rotisserie chicken (another great shortcut ingredient) and it's a fast and filling lunch or dinner.




3. Whole Foods shrimp skewers - This is one of the most convenient ways to prepare seafood. The Whole Foods fish counter sells shrimp that has already been peeled, deveined, skewered, and occasionally, pre-seasoned. All the hard work is done, so these skewers can just be grilled or sauteed for a few minutes and then they're ready to eat. They're also frequently running good deals on it too, so it can be an economical option for serving seafood at home as well.
4. Frontera Seasoning Sauces - I have always been a fan of Chicago chef Rick Bayless and his amazing restaurants (I'm not sure how many times I have proclaimed my love for his Tortas Frontera at O'Hare Airport here), but these sauces are game changers for cooking at home. These flavorful sauce pouches make a Mexican-inspired dinner at home so easy. I especially love the slow cooker pork carnitas and beef barbacoa sauces because the slow cooker always wins when it comes to making a shortcut meal-- and the flavors just get better the longer they cook. I also love the enchilada sauces, which are perfect for a make-ahead meal. Just add cheese and/or shredded rotisserie chicken!
5. Rotisserie chicken - A rotisserie chicken is one of the staples of shortcut cooking. They can be used in hundreds of different ways-- and often in conjunction with the other foods on this list! I like to shred the chicken and use it to fill enchiladas or sandwiches, toss with pasta, top a salad, or to serve on its own with a cooked veggie and a starch for a simple dinner. Be on the lookout for other varieties too-- my grocery store sells rotisserie chickens with different seasoning blends, unsalted, and also just the chicken breast too. And for a real time saver, they frequently sell the pre-shredded meat right next to the whole chickens.
6. Uncle Ben's Ready Rice - I first discovered these handy little pouches in college-- another time in my life when I didn't have enough time to cook a real meal very often. I have recently added them back into heavy rotation for our weeknight dinners and forgot just how convenient they were. Just 90 seconds in the microwave and you've got rice for two ready to serve. I love the brown and the whole grain wild rice, while my husband prefers the rice pilaf. All of them are a great accompaniment to any grilled protein or to a quick stir fry.
7. Salad bar vegetables - This is one of my new favorite cooking hacks. Instead of spending tons of time washing and chopping vegetables, picking a few pre-cut veggies from the salad bar at your grocery store is a great way to incorporate fresh produce into a meal while seriously cutting down your prep time. My favorite salad bar veggies include bell pepper strips, matchstick carrots, chopped celery, and snow peas (because my store only sells them in huge 8 oz. packages when I usually only need a handful). It may not be as economical as buying vegetables whole, but it's a great option when you're pressed for time.

 
8. Soy Vay sauces - I love these sauces and marinades for an easy Asian-inspired dinner. One of my new go to dinners is to add a browned pork tenderloin and diced onions to a slow cooker with a little chicken broth and Soy Vay Veri Veri Teriyaki. I add sliced bell peppers and snow peas (see #3!) for the last hour of cooking and serve over rice.
9. Pacific Organic Roasted Red Pepper Tomato Soup - I'm not usually a fan of prepared soups. They're usually chock full of salt and preservatives. This soup is a different story though. It's creamy and flavorful and made with real ingredients. They also sell it in one of those handy containers, making it easier to store than canned soup. I love this soup with a toasty grilled cheese sandwich or a side salad for an easy meatless dinner or lunch. I also recently spotted it at Costco too!



10. Annie's Mac & Cheese - Boxed mac and cheese is the ultimate shortcut meal-- and one of my guiltiest pleasures for as long as I have been eating solid foods, I'm pretty sure. Thankfully, Annie's makes me feel slightly better about eating boxed macaroni and cheese since it is made with organic pasta, all natural ingredients, and no preservatives. I like mine with a few dashes of hot sauce and then I mix in some cooked veggies (like roasted broccoli or asparagus) or for the quickest of shortcut meals, stir fresh spinach leaves into the hot mac and cheese. It wilts down in seconds and ups the health quotient of your bowl a bit more. By the way, they sell variety packs of Annie's mac and cheeses at Costco too. It's a great way to stock up and make sure that you always have a meal on hand and can avoid costly takeout when you're feeling lazy or pressed for time.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Grilled Steak with Balsamic Tomatoes

Even though fall isn't necessarily considered to be prime grilling season, Alex and I still love making dinner on the grill as often as possible in these chillier weeks leading up to our first snow (eek!). In fact, I sometimes prefer grilling in the fall. It's a lot nicer to tend a hot grill when there's a chill in the air versus when it is 90 degrees outside! So if you're looking for a way to celebrate the great outdoors while you still can-- and a way to use some of those end of season tomatoes-- this grilling recipe is a great one! This easy tomato saute really brings out their flavor.


These flavorful sauteed tomatoes are an easy and elegant topping for a simple grilled steak. Cooking them down until they begin to burst releases their juices, which then gets combined with broth, Balsamic vinegar, and a touch of Worcestershire sauce. A little fresh garlic and rosemary adds a little savory depth to the flavor and once it all cooks together it thickens up and is perfect for spooning over the top of a steak.


I didn't specify what kind of steak to use here or even how to prepare it (beyond basic seasoning) because, to be honest, this is really all about the tomatoes. I prefer a filet, but get creative and use these on any cut that you like! And while this is delicious on steaks (especially with that touch of Worcestershire sauce), these tomatoes are versatile and could be served over grilled chicken breasts or a pork tenderloin too.


Ingredients:
 

  • 2 steaks, seasoned with salt and pepper and grilled to desired level of doneness
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 Tbs. Olive oil
  • 1 Tbs. Butter
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes
  • 1/2 tsp. Fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 1/4 cup white wine or vegetable broth
  • 1/4 tsp. Worcestershire sauce 
  • 1 1/2 Tbs. Balsamic vinegar

Heat a medium pan over medium-low heat and add olive oil and butter. Swirl to coat the pan and add in garlic. Saute for one minute, stirring frequently. Bring heat up to medium and add tomatoes.

Saute the tomatoes for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add in the rosemary and continue to saute for another 5 minutes. Pour the broth and the Worcestershire sauce into the pan and simmer until the liquid has reduced by about half and begins to thicken. Stir in the balsamic vinegar, cook for 2 minutes. and remove from heat.

Spoon over the cooked steaks and serve.



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