September 27, 2012

Whatever You Got - Quinoa Bake!

We all have those nights at home when we need to throw something together for dinner - we want it to be tasty & healthy, yet it may seem like we have nothing on hand but a bunch of random ingredients.  This is the best time to be creative!  A self-taught home cook (with the exception of watching my mother & grandmother cook growing up) I have learned that ingredient substitution can be the key to a successful meal, just when thought you didn't have what you need!

I call the recipe below Whatever You Got - Quinoa Bake because after reading a number of various quinoa recipes online, I realized I had similar ingredients but none that exactly matched any recipe I found.  I noticed that some recipes called for milk & flour - but I only had breadcrumbs and low-fat sour cream.  Some called for fresh spinach & parmesan cheese, or shallots & bell peppers - but I only had frozen spinach & fat-free feta.  What to do?  Substitute!  Use up what you have, whether it's fresh or frozen ingredients - if the combination sounds like it would be good then give it a try!  This is also a great way to learn some cooking basics :)

It's also a good idea to keep some staple items in your cupboard to serve as a base for those random week night (or weekend) dishes. Some of my favorites include quinoa, rice & pasta - they are affordable, will last you a long time & offer endless meal options.  I have to say that quinoa is my current favorite, although it used to do nothing but sit on the shelves in the grocery store and intimidate me as I made my way down the aisle.  Afraid no more, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) and I now collaborate often, lucky for me.  This little wonder seed (also considered a whole-grain but is actually a seed) is not only packed with vitamins, minerals & fiber, but it is also a complete protein - which means it's a great alternative to protein-rich meats & fish.  

To cook quinoa you must first soak the seeds in water (cold or room temp) for a few minutes in order to remove the naturally bitter coating called saponin.  I like to put the seeds in a sieve set in a bowl of water to soak - that way it's easily transferable to the pot for cooking.  Various brands of quinoa may give you slightly different cooking directions, but I think it's easiest to stick to a rule of 1 part quinoa to 2 parts water (or broth if you choose).

Check out the recipe for my Whatever You Got - Quinoa Bake below - a healthy & filling weeknight dinner.  The combination I came up with ended up tasting somewhat similar to Thanksgiving stuffing - I was not mad.  I've also listed suggestions for substitutions, so get creative y'all!

Chicken broth | Bouillon cubes | Quinoa

September 24, 2012

Autumn Spice, Game Day Chili & Everything Nice...

Saturday marked one of my favorite days of the year - the first official day of fall.  As I've mentioned, I'm a sucker for the seasonal changes that come with living in the Midwest.  I grew up in a home where the different seasons were signified & celebrated by changing decor, scented candles, cozy fires and baking - traditions that are still deeply rooted in my own life today.  There are so many wonderful things to love about fall - some of my personal favorites include:

pumpkin & spice scented candles | crisp fall temps | CHAI LATTES |  football  | acorn squash | spiked apple cider BOOTS & JEANS | pumpkin spice doughnuts the wood burning fireplace in my cozy apartment | apple orchards |  pumpkin patches  | BONFIRES | candy corn & peanutscinnamon in my coffee | PUMPKIN SWIRL CHEESECAKE | sweaters | decorative gourds | baking pumpkin bread | CHILI | hayrack rides | changing leaves {

A little throw-back fall photo: a trip to the pumpkin patch with my siblings & cousins - circa 1992.  Since then many more cousins & another sibling of mine were added to our huge, hilarious family...

L-R: my cousins Ben, Jordan, my little brother Andrew (red hoodie), my cousin Aaron
(yellow coat), my older brother Ian (glasses), our hilarious uncle Matt, my cousin Nate,
Me (next to Ian), my sister Abbey (huge grin) and my cousin Jaelynn (pink coat)

Some of the best fall days are spent watching football, whether it be at a rowdy bar, in the comfort of your home or if you're lucky - at the actual game.  Saturday I had some family over to watch the Hawkeyes - who unfortunately lost by one point last minute, but we won't focus on that right now - rather, we'll focus on the high points of the day...  

It was a crisp 55 degrees outside and the sun was shining.  I had my pumpkin & autumn spiced candles burning, and cinnamon sticks boiling in a small pot on the stove - the air smelled heavenly.  My brother & sister-in-law showed up just in time for kick-off, bags of goodies & a mini-pumpkin in hand as a gift for the host - they know me so well!  As I put the last of the ingredients for the chili in the stock pot to simmer (recipe below!), my brother busted out his shakers & impressive ingredients and proceeded to make the most decadent, over-the-top delicious bloody marys from scratch.  

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing, talking, eating & laughing - yet another great day filled with the simplest of pleasures.  I get so much joy out of hosting - a trait I definitely acquired from my mother & grandmother - and I love almost nothing more than spending quality time with family.  We are lucky to have days like yesterday, as my brother & his wife recently relocated to Chicago after spending 4+ years in Austin, TX.  Austin is a fantastic city and I know they miss it dearly, but they are happy to be closer to family & we are thrilled to have them closer too.  

I look forward to many more days like yesterday - in the meantime, I share with you a few snapshots of how I'm representin' Fall in my apartment, and the recipe for the easy & healthy chili I made Saturday...enjoy!

Mantle above my fireplace

Autumn Spice soy candle in the bedroom

A vintage photo of my mom (circa 1972) sits on a side table in my living room

Dining table: mason jar of matchbooks, bowl full of gourds &
the pumpkin my brother & sister-in-law brought me

Ashley's Autumn Chili
Feeds about 6 people


- 1 (1 lb.) pkg. extra lean ground beef
- 1 diced green pepper
- 1 diced red pepper
- 1 diced yellow pepper
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 small red onion diced

- 1 can reduced sodium kidney beans
- 1 can reduced sodium black beans
- 1 29 oz. can tomato sauce
- 1 14.7 oz. can diced tomatoes
- 3 tblsp cumin
- 3 tblsp chili powder
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup stout or pale ale beer


Combine beef, all peppers, garlic and onion in a large pot on the stove.  Saute until beef is cooked.  Add all remaining ingredients to pot (beans through beer) and stir well.  Simmer on medium-low heat for 45 minutes, making sure to stir the chili every 5 minutes or so, to ensure it doesn't burn or stick to the bottom of the pot.
Top chili in individual bowls with a shredded, reduced fat cheese of your choice & a dollop of fat free Greek yogurt (in place of sour cream).  Serve with a side of French bread.

Chili spread

September 20, 2012

Bavette's with a Side of David Byrne & St. Vincent

Tuesday night turned out to be one of those perfect nights out in the City - the kind you plan and then endlessly anticipate - and if you're lucky, it all comes together in the most magical way.  Enter: Bavette's Bar & Boeuf and David Bryne (with St. Vincent) at the Chicago Theater...

On the cusp of fall, the air was crisp & fresh as I walked off the train and into Bavette's - the newly opened steakhouse and oyster bar from Brendan Sodikoff.  The first to arrive of my friends, I waited in a large tufted leather booth, taking in my surroundings.  The dimly-lit space boasts loads of exposed brick (love), big & beautiful chandeliers, antiqued mirrors and a Parisian/speakeasy vibe.  Jazz music permeated my subconscious as I gazed over the cocktail menu, settling on the Lillet Rosé Martini to start - an easy mix of Russian vodka, St. Germain & Litllet Rosé.  As I waited for my dining companions to arrive I couldn't help but grin as I stared back at the beautiful little antique plates in the center of the table, just waiting to assist with our meal - they were near replicas of the antique tea saucers my grandmother had given my sisters & I many years ago.

Bavette's | Lillet Rosé martini

September 18, 2012

Quick and Healthy Spinach, Beet & Feta Salad with a Side of Savory Pasta and Friendship

Every so often I love to stay in on a Friday or Saturday night, hang with a great friend, cook and share stories over a bottle of wine and a great meal - which is exactly what my friend Alex & I did last weekend.  With Alex being the fellow foodie & fun gal that she is, you'll typically find us hitting up brand new spots for dinner or brunch, exchanging emails about food fests & restaurant write-ups or passing recipes back & forth - we can't ever seem to get enough and it's fantastic.

Our Friday night was filled with red wine, laughter, my healthy spinach salad (a great end of summer into fall salad to take anywhere), and one delicious pasta sauce, recipe courtesy of Alex's mama - simply de-lish!  This meal is a good example of balancing health and indulgence - get your greens but also remember, you have to allow yourself to enjoy the finer, more buttery things in life from time to time :)  Check out the recipes below!

Salad pre-dressing

September 16, 2012

Cheers to Another Year of Successful Cultivation!

The second annual Chicago Chipotle Cultivate Festival was yet another successful meeting of artisans, chefs, farmers, musicians and sustainability & food integrity enthusiasts.  This year's turnout was larger and more enthusiastic than last year, hopefully an indication of the continued growth & success the festival will see in coming years.

Walking into Lincoln Park you could immediately feel the buzz of sharing ideas, discovery & happiness.  The sun was shining and the air was warm, filled with intoxicating smells of fresh popped popcorn, fresh brewed coffee, portabella mushroom & garlic soup, chocolate truffles, simmering pulled pork & cornbread, meatballs, fresh guacamole and other goodness.  The craft beer tent was hopping (pun quite possibly intended) and the musicians were jamming.  There were young adults, more seasoned folk, families, dogs & endless opportunities to mingle & enjoy some of the best things in life.

A special shout out goes out to the crew of Tiny But Mighty Popcorn and everyone who came by to see us.  We had a very successful day and so enjoyed meeting all the many new people - sharing stories, insight & good food - we loved seeing all the familiar faces too!

If you missed this year's Fest then check out some photos I took & posted below - and don't forget to keep an eye out for news regarding the third annual Cultivate Festival - date TBD!

Have a great week all!

Getting set-up in the Artisans' Tent

September 13, 2012

Cultivate Fest is Almost Here!! Be There, or Be Square...

Have you heard of the Chipotle Cultivate Festival?  If not, you're probably not alone - but you better recognize! The second annual festival kicks off this Saturday (9/15) at 11:00 am and runs until 7:00 pm.  Cultivate is an amazing, eye-opening festival (only in Chicago & Denver) focused on farm to table food, locally sourced products, farmers, famous chefs and they have a craft beer tent and great music.  Mayer Hawthorne headlined last year and G. Love & Special Sauce is headlining this year - and did I mention that it's FREE admission?!  That's right, you only need to pay for the food & drink you consume and the products you buy - the music & experience are free.

The festival also holds a special place in my heart because my Aunt & Uncle's Popcorn - Tiny But Mighty Popcorn - will yet again have a booth showcasing their amazing product.  Now, I know it could easily seem that I am just biased, but after learning about the product and consuming it for many, many years I can honestly say I would support it regardless of who was growing and selling it, because it is that AMAZING!!!  However, I am incredibly lucky enough that the popcorn is a product planted, grown, packaged & produced all by my amazing Aunt Lynn & Uncle Gene Mealhow.  I couldn't be happier for them and their hard work & dedication over the last decade+ is really starting to pay off!

You can read more about their full story here on their website.

2011 Cultivate Festival: me, Uncle/Farmer Gene, my sister Abbey

September 11, 2012

The Purple Pig: Worth the Wait

First off today - a special mention of all those who were affected by the World Trade Center attack as we mark the 11th anniversary of that incredibly sad & difficult day today.  All those who were lost, who are carrying on without their loved ones, and all those who have played an active role in rebuilding the City of New York and this country hold a special place in our hearts today and forever.


The Purple Pig had been at the top of my restaurant list since its debut a little over two years ago.  That's right, it took two years for the stars to align for myself and The Pig...two years and nearly a two-hour wait, accompanied by two glasses of delicious red wine...and it was totally worth it.

The Purple Pig sits along the infamously touristy Magnificent Mile, but don't be deceived by its local - this place is anything but gimmicky.  It's a serious & authentic take on not just pork, but Mediterranean small plates, beer and they've got a wine list for days.  Bon Appétit discovered The Pig's potential not long after they opened in 2010, naming it one of The 10 Best New Restaurants in America.

Not taking reservations can lead to some hefty wait times, but don't let that deter you from going - they have an open terrace connected to their outdoor patio where customers can mingle & sip while waiting for a table.  The girls & I happily ordered wine from the awesomely friendly waitress outside and spent the time catching up with each others' lives.  You see, that's the thing about waiting - you can allow it to be a negative thing, or you can make the most of it by reconnecting with some of your all-time favorite people in this life, which is exactly what we did.

September 9, 2012

End of Summer Sweet Corn & Blueberry Salad

Summer may be coming to a close, but it's not over yet!  Now is a fabulous time to be hitting up those outdoor farmers markets & trying out the summer recipes you've been pining over.  If you can get your hands on some sweet corn (I'd recommend Iowa sweet corn of course!) I have a fabulous & healthy salad recipe that you should be taking to your end of the summer get-togethers, courtesy of Better Homes and Gardens.

This corn & blueberry salad was a hit at the barbeque I took it to, so much so that I ended up emailing the recipe to most of the people at the party.  I also told some friends & coworkers about the dish and, even though they hadn't actually tasted it, they were intrigued enough to ask for the recipe also!

A slightly modified version of the recipe is below - I adjusted the amounts of a few ingredients according to my taste & it turned out great - Enjoy & cheers to these final summer days!

Corn & Blueberry Salad 

(adapted from Better Homes and Gardens)

  • 5 ears (Iowa) sweet corn, husked
  • cups fresh blueberries, rinsed
  • 1 large cucumber, skin on & diced
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • tablespoons lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt


In a large pot bring salted water to a boil. Add corn. Boil 5 minutes, or until tender. When cool enough to handle, slice the corn off the cobs into a bowl.  Set aside.

Cut up cucumber, onion and jalapeno and chop cilantro. In a large serving bowl combine the corn, blueberries, cucumber, red onion, cilantro, and jalapeno. 

For dressing, combine lime juice, lemon juice, olive oil, honey, cumin and 1/2 tsp. salt. Whisk ingredients together, adjusting according to taste. Drizzle over salad and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate several hours (I only did 2 hours) or overnight (up to 24 hours). Makes 6 to 8 servings.

September 7, 2012

Table Talk...and Touches that Make a Place Your Own

A little over a year ago I moved into the apartment I now call home.  It's currently my fifth year living in Chicago & my fourth apartment...some people have said that I'm crazy for moving so much, but experiencing the different areas of the city has been an exciting part of every move, and I don't regret any of matter how many times my past roommates & I said "we're never doing this again!"

With about five months left in my last lease (with roommates, and I should mention they are two of the most awesome girls I know), something just...clicked.  It was as if I woke up one morning feeling totally ready for more independence...I was completely ready for a place of my own.  After finding my one bedroom, eclectic little gem in LP I was excited to settle in and set the mood of my new place.

One of my most favorite things about getting into a new space is making it your own.  Giving it those personal touches that not only make it a home, but make it your home.  Over the years my style has morphed into a mix of vintage & new, with a healthy sprinkling of personal touches - it's cozy & inviting & interesting.  I typically don't hang things on the walls unless I made them (like the prints I did in Venice when I was 20), or someone I know made them (like one of my uncle Matt's prints he did in college); I have numerous vases, dishes & jewelry from my mother, grandmother & great-grandmother; black & white original photos of my grandparents from the 1950's; my late grandfather's hand drawn blueprints framed above my bookshelf; and a headboard made by my incredibly talented Aunt Jo (she should seriously have her own HGTV show).

Papa's blueprints & family photos

September 5, 2012

Fall Is...Almost in the Air!

Pinterest is blowing up with Pins related to all things Fall...Pumpkin Spice Lattes are back as of yesterday at Starbucks....and I've been asked to submit my Holiday time off requests at work by this Friday - Fall is definitely on the horizon!  Refinery29 recently shared a wonderful and healthy recipe for a Roasted Squash & Kale salad that sounds like it would be the perfect Thanksgiving side dish!  Check it out below...

Photo courtesy of - Recipes by , Photographed by 

September 4, 2012

LP's New Top Spot - the J. Parker

I hope you all had a wonderful Labor Day weekend - I know I did.  One of my best friends got married on Saturday and I had the privilege of standing up next to her (and salsa-ing the night away with her fun & incredibly sweet extended Colombian family!).  I got to see some friends from Iowa and Vegas whom I hadn't see in a very long time, and on Monday my sister and I ventured to Lincoln Park Zoo and later found ourselves enjoying one of the last weekends of summer atop Hotel Lincoln on the beautiful new J. Parker rooftop patio.

Enter into the lobby of the adorable revamped Hotel Lincoln (don't forget to peek your head into Elaine's Coffee Call - too cute to miss) and head towards the elevator where a friendly staff member is manning the host station.  He'll politely ask you if you have reservations and will let you know the status of the rooftop, whether your answer is yes or no.  After letting him know we had not made a reservation, he let us know there were plenty of seats in the covered area inside & plenty of standing room all around.

Elaine's Coffee Call