Take me back to Tuscany

cannellini and artichoke spread

The weather in Chicago is seriously wearing on me. These days, I’m checking the 10-day forecast obsessively, waiting for the day that breaks 50 degrees. Come on 50. Fifty and sunny.

And I’m dreaming about travelling, far, far away …

… back to Tuscany and its rolling hills, dotted with grape vines, olive trees and medieval castles.

Alas, a European vacation is nowhere in the foreseeable future, so I’ll have to settle on giving my mouth a vacation.

Hmmm … that didn’t sound quite right. But you get my point.

This cannellini spread is quintessentially Tuscan—simple, rustic, peasant food from the old country. And since we’re talking a little stay-cation of sorts, let’s do it up right with some apt kitchen props.

A taste of Tuscany


Doesn’t this collection make you feel like you’ve wandered into a rustic Italian farmhouse?

  1. Chef’s planet 30-oz. oil pourer
  2. Sagaform wine carafe with oak stopper
  3. Provence Ploughman’s platter
  4. Flax tea towel
  5. Cantaria round casserole
  6. Viertri rustic planter

And to complete the experience …

white bean goat cheese crostini_small

Rustic cannellini spread

You’ll need:

1 cup cannellini beans

5-6 artichoke heart quarters (canned/jarred)

2 tbsp fresh oregano

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 oz. goat cheese

salt and pepper to taste

french baguette, sliced thin

melted butter for brushing baguette slices

Blend all ingredients minus the bread in a food processor or blender until smooth. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Slice baguette as thin as possible and brush slices generously with butter. Toast under the broiler on a cookie sheet until golden and crispy.

Serve dip with baguette slices.

white bean goat cheese dip | from Better with Butter

Foodie crush: Sonya Yu

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Are you on Instagram? Silly question, of course you are. If not, you must join and immediately follow Sonya Yu.

For me, it’s her double F appeal: Food + Frenchies.

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I mean, COME ON.

The Frenchie photos drew me, so imagine my surprise when, during my early-morning Instagram browsing, I discovered her glorious foodiegrams. **Squeeeeeeeee!!!**

These delicious slices of life will, well, make you want her life. It’s a wonderland of adorable flat-faced pups that graciously pose for pictures (no bribes required?); perpetual brunching; breathtaking travel vistas; and achingly perfect floral arrangements.

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And, behold: her non-iPhone photography.

Also, don’t mess with her, because she’s got the bear spray and samurai swords at the ready. 

Basically, she’s my hero.

Sonya, if you’re in Chicago anytime soon, I’ve got the in on the hottest brunch spots in town.

Salad art

greek salad art

I’m thrilled by the inherent beauty in freshly picked herbs, shimmering with dew; cracked pomegranates with glowing crimson seeds; rustic french bread, steam billowing from an airy interior; and the list goes on—I could wax poetic about edible inspirations (did I borrow that from a fruit bouquet company tagline?) for hours. And capturing this beauty in a photo is almost as satisfying as devouring the finished product.

So imagine my delight when I had the opportunity to pair up with May van Millingen—an artist who takes as much pride in documenting a plate of food, in all its fleeting glory, as I do—to work on a photo/illustration collaboration.

I loved the colors and simplicity of these Greek salad sticks, and May did them proud.

greek salad on a stick 4_large

greek salad 2

You can see more of May’s beautiful work on here website, mayvanmilligen.com.

Oh yeah—and the recipe isn’t too shabby either.

Greek Salad on a stick with homemade tzatziki sauce

Makes about two dozen skewers

You’ll need:

1 head butter lettuce

1/2 of a red onion

1 hothouse/English cucumber

4 oz. feta cheese


For sauce:

7 oz. plain, full-fat Greek yogurt

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon dried dill

1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1/2 tablespoon lemon juice

3 tablespoons minced cucumber

salt and pepper to taste

Tear lettuce into small pieces (about the size of a business card); cut cucumbers and feta into 1/2-inch cubes; roughly chop onions into 1/2 inch pieces. Assemble skewers with a piece of lettuce, a cucumber piece, a piece of feta, another cucumber and a piece of red onion.

Mix all ingredients for tzatziki. Chill skewers and sauce for 10-15 minutes and then serve immediately.

greek salad on a stick 3_large


Cheeseburger poppers

homemade jalapeno poppers 2

I can’t always come up with witty post titles. Fortunately, this one should catch your attention in spite of itself. You really can’t go wrong when you stuff fresh, fiery jalapeños with ground beef and melty cheese, drench them in beer batter and fry them to golden-brown perfection. The homemade ranch is the icing on the cake.

They’re big and gooey, which makes them a little tricky as a finger food. Still, the most macho men (and hardcore ladies) will take them to the face while hovering over the game-day app table without thinking twice. My advice? Grab a plate, hunker down, and go to town on these babies with a fork and knife.

Cheeseburger jalapeño poppers with homemade ranch

You’ll need:

Two dozen jalapeños

1 lb ground beef

1/2 lb sliced American cheese (from the deli), chopped

4 oz cream cheese, softened

3 tablespoons dried, minced onion

1 tablespoon garlic

Salt and pepper to taste

Enough vegetable oil to fill a small stock pot, sauce pan or deep fryer so that the poppers are completely submerged during frying

For beer batter:

1 beer

1 1/2 cup flour

Salt and pepper to taste

For homemade ranch:

1/2 cup mayo

1 cup sour cream

1/2 tablespoon dill

1/2 tablespoon dried, minced onion

1/2 tablespoon garlic powder

Salt and pepper to taste

homemade jalapeno poppers

Cook the ground beef with a little oil or butter in a skillet over medium-heat until cooked through—5 minutes or so—stirring constantly.

Pour off excess fat and add meat to a bowl with cheeses, onions, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Stir together until the cheese begins to melt and the ingredients are well incorporated. Set aside.

Slice each jalapeño, down the side in a “v” shape, as shown below, and carefully remove the seeds and white veins. If some seeds and veins are left, that’s fine–your poppers will just be a little spicier. Keep the tops with the jalapeños they came from as best as you can so you’ve got a good fit on each popper.

Fill a piping bag (or a plastic bag with a hole snipped on the end) with the popper filling and pipe a bit into each popper. The insides should be full, and the “lids” on the poppers bulging a bit, but not so much that the poppers don’t stay together.

How to make jalapeno poppers

Set filled jalapeños aside and prepare the batter by mixing all batter ingredients.

You can also prepare the ranch sauce at this time—simply mix all ranch ingredients in a bowl and chill in the fridge until you’re ready to serve.

Meanwhile, heat the oil over medium-high heat. You’ll want to reach and maintain a frying temp between 360 and 375 degrees or so.

When oil is heated to the proper temp, using tongs, dip each jalapeño, one at a time, in the batter; let excess drip off for a second or so and quickly place directly into the oil. Immediately after putting each jalapeño in the batter, agitate with your tongs to make sure the popper doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. You can fry poppers in batches of 2 or 3, for about 3-5 minutes each or until golden brown. If necessary, adjust the burner to maintain your oil temp.

Drain poppers on a paper towel and serve immediately with ranch.

jalapeno poppers recipe 2

Eat your brussels sprouts (no really, they’re fantastic)

brussels sprouts 3

Why brussels sprouts (and broccoli, for that matter) get a bad rap is beyond me. When prepared well, they’re a fantastic accompaniment to just about any meal. Also, it’s a fallacy that you have to add bacon to make them taste good. Of course, a little bacon never hurt anyone. Take it from my new fave paleo blogger and partner in crime, Nicole over at BaconIsHealthy.com.

I digress. To prove to you all that brussels sprouts are amazing—and don’t need to be studded with pork fat to shine—I whipped up a recipe, and it couldn’t be simpler.

Inspired by a delicious dish at my favorite lunch spot, I added parsley root. Truth be told, I was aiming for parsnip. I thought I bought parsnip. I was wrong. Using it anyway proved to be a wise decision, though—it added something really special to the finished dish.

Brussels sprouts with parsley root

You’ll need:

1/2 lb brussels sprouts

1/2 yellow onion, chopped

2 parsley roots, chopped

2 tbsp butter

3 tbsp mayonnaise

Salt and pepper to taste

Squeeze of lemon

Remove any outer leaves from sprouts. Boil water and add brussels sprouts. Cook for three to five minutes, then remove and promptly shock sprouts in cold water.

Cook onions and parsley root in butter over medium-high heat until tender, several minutes.

Add brussels sprouts just for a minute or so, or until they’re cooked through (tender). Drain any excess liquid and allow to cool for a few minutes.

Add mayonaise, lemon and salt and pepper. Serve warm.

brussels sprouts 2


Gourmet game day

Super bowl food ideas

The best thing about game-day parties is the excuse to stuff your face and guzzle beer with zero guilt. Don’t show up to your Super Bowl party empty-handed. Seriously, don’t be that guy/gal.

I’ve even taken you half of the way there, with this handy-dandy Super Bowl recipe list:

You can thank me in free game-day betting squares.


Jalapeno popper dip

Greek 7-layer dip

Loaded bake potato dip

Hot spinach dip

White queso dip

Sliders and sammies

Spicy whiskey BBQ sliders

Out-of-this-world veggie burgers

Cheeseburger sliders

Fried pizza sandwiches

Philly cheesesteak with garlic aioli

Crock Pot faves

Slow-cooker carnitas

Crock Pot picante chicken

Crock Pot chicken, rice and green chile casserole

Crock Pot chicken taco chili

Slow cooker buffalo chicken sandwiches

Party staples

Italian deviled eggs

Potato salad

Tomatillo salsa


Bacon mini quiche

Mexican munchies

Chicken tostadas

Double-decker taco cupcakes

Won ton tacos

Mac ‘n’ cheese tacos

Mini fish tacos


Greek pizza

Prosciutto, arugula and parmesan pizza

Red pepper and goat cheese flatbread

Buffalo chicken pizza

BLT pizza


Sweet potato cakes with BBQ brisket

Bacon wrapped potatoes

Potato rings with ranch

Bacon and blue cheese french fries

Mac ‘n’ cheese french fries

Miscellaneous bites

CB&J crostini

Bacon cheddar hush puppies

BBQ chicken cornbread pie

Corn dog tots

Sweet potato chorizo hand tarts


Guava orange margaritas

Bourbon bomber

Dark and stormy

His and her whiskey cocktails

Lights-out punch

Super Bowl sweets

Brown butter and bourbon blondies

Football cookies

Salted caramel cheesecake shooters

Bacon apple pie

Dessert nachos


Musings of an urban gardener


February in frigid Chicago has me daydreaming about next season’s urban garden. Also, many of my indoor succulents are hanging on for dear life. I can’t wait to get them back outside and watch them explode in the warm, humid Chicago summer. Last year was fruitful … literally, if you count my teeny, tiny strawberries. I’m hoping it will be a successful potted perennial—and that this summer’s yield will be bigger than tic tacs.


While I stare longingly at my snow covered pots, I’m dreaming about starting new seeds and running my hands through fragrant bunches of basil. Here are a few of the items on my list for this spring:

  • Poppies. Had some last year. They were lovely. I drowned them in a pot that wasn’t properly draining. Better luck this year, let’s hope.
  • Beets. So I can make this beauty again and say it’s locally sourced.
  • Microgreens. I LOVE them. And they look amazing as a garnish in food photography.
  • Edible flowers. Ditto on the last point.
  • Tomatoes. ‘Nuff said.

And, five things I never knew you could grow in a container that I plant to try:

  • Fig tree. I know it may never bear fruit. I know it might not survive the Chicago winter, even in my garage or condo. But I’m trying anyway, dammit.
  • Lemon tree. See the last point.
  • Avocado tree. Ditto.
  • Saffron. I hear it’s easy to grow—if I can’t kill it, we’ll know that’s the truth
  • Pomegranate. Wouldn’t that be amazing??

Also, thanks to this amazing site, I even got organized enough (read: obsessed) to plan my seed-starting schedule.

Follow my urban garden board on Pinterest for more inspiration.

What are you growing this spring/summer? Anything else I should add to my list?

Tortilla soup and tostadas, part dos

chicken black bean tostadas_7

It’s the end of the month and I’m falling off the paleo wagon. Still committed to a healthier diet, but God help me, I’m having some damn grains already. Corn and flour specifically. So here we go …

The best kinds of recipes are highly adaptable. Take my tortilla soup. It’s a thick, blended, stew-style concoction that’s not for traditionalists, but delicious all the same. Beans, tortilla chips, vegetables, spices and chicken stock—in almost any variation—blended and topped with shredded chicken, cheese and tortilla strips, will yield something fantastic. It’s so thick and flavorful, it makes for good enchilada filling, nacho dressing and in this case, tostada topping. The first tostada tortilla soup combo was great, but this one might be even better.

chicken black bean tostadas

Chicken tortilla soup

You’ll need:

3-4 cups chicken broth

1/2 yellow onion, roughly chopped

1 dried ancho chile, roughly chopped, seeds removed

1 red pepper roughly chopped

2 yellow squash or zucchini, peeled and chopped

1/4 cup bacon fat (this is optional–I happened to have it lying around from breakfast that day and it added an extra oomph)

1 can pinto beans, drained of half the juice 

1/4 tsp chili powder

1 tsp garlic powder

1/4 tsp paprika

1/2 tsp cumin

3 cups crushed tortilla chips

2 tbsp tomato paste

1 lb cooked chicken, shredded (I cooked a whole chicken and used a mix of the dark and white meat)

Shredded mexican cheese, sour cream and extra tortilla chips for topping

Put all ingredients (start with 3 cups of chicken broth and add the additional cup as needed while cooking), minus the chicken and toppings in a crock pot. Cook on high, covered, for 3-4 hours, stirring occasionally.

Blend crock pot contents until pureed. Stir in chicken (reheat, if necessary before adding). Top with cheese, crumbled tortilla chips and sour cream.

For the tostadas, buy tostada shells, or make your own by frying small corn tortillas in vegetable oil until golden brown. Top with chicken tortilla soup, black or pinto beans and shredded cheese. Toast under broiler until cheese is melty and bubbling. Serve with sour cream.

chicken black bean tostadas_4


Beef at its best

braised beef short rib

A couple of Saturdays ago, I dragged my cooking club ladies down the paleo rabbit hole—with quite astonishing results. We gorged ourselves on shepherd’s pie, shrimp cakes, lettuce wraps, bacon-wrapped dates, meatballs, key lime pie, chocolate banana pie and last but not least, insanely rich, beef short ribs—bursting with flavor and piled high atop rosemary and bacon-studded sweet potatoes.

Dave eyed the feast from afar, then dove in for the kill as the girls distractedly lingered over paleo-approved palomas.

As for the short ribs, I hesitate to even call them paleo. Nothing is sacrificed, nothing left to be desired. The only thing that could possibly make this dish better is a loaf of crusty french bread to mop up the juices.

mmmm …. bread …

Sorry. Anyway, as I was saying, the recipe is slow, but you can feel the love in the finished dish—and the flavor is worth every minute.

beef short ribs braised

Short ribs after the oven, before finishing on the stovetop

Wine-braised beef short rib with rosemary and bacon sweet potatoes (shhh … it’s paleo!)

(adapted from Saveur)

You’ll need:

4 lbs beef short ribs, bone in

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 yellow onion, chopped

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

1 bottle (750 ml) tawny port

3 cups beef stock

3 cups water

1 cup chicken stock

Salt and pepper

For sweet potatoes:

three large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

4 sprigs rosemary

3/4 cup ghee (or butter)

8 slices bacon

1/4 tsp white pepper

salt to taste

beef short ribs

You can’t go wrong with the Whole Foods meat department

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Generously season ribs with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in large stove and oven-proof pot/baking dish over high heat (I used my big cast iron enamel Le Creuset—it will have to be large enough to hold all of the ingredients). Add ribs and brown on all sides. Remove and set aside.

Add veggies to the pot and cook for about 5 minutes, until lightly browned. Deglaze with port and cook for about 15 minutes, or until port is reduced by about three-quarters.

Return ribs to pot and add stocks and water. Bring to a boil, then cover with a lid or foil and put in the oven.

Bake for about 2 1/2 hours or until the ribs begin to break apart easily with a fork. Remove from oven and allow pot to cool. You can refrigerate overnight, or, like I did, let it cool for a couple of hours or so, then complete the next steps as your dinner guests arrive.

The next day or about an hour before you aim to serve dinner, transfer pot to stove and simmer over medium heat for about an hour, until the sauce begins to thicken into a syrupy consistency and concentrate in flavor. Spoon liquid over ribs every now and then as the dish heats and move the ribs around as necessary to make sure they don’t burn.


At the same time you put the ribs back on the stove, cook your sweet potatoes in a covered baking dish with butter or ghee and rosemary in a 375-degree oven for about an hour or until tender. When cooked through, add bacon and puree sweet potatoes (along with the rosemary and butter).

Serve short ribs over sweet potatoes and topped with a healthy ladle of sauce from the pot.

wine braised short rib


A little nutty

paleo nut clusters

This diet that is. And how I begin to feel after a day of forcing down handfuls of baby carrots, hard-boiled eggs, oranges and boatloads of bacon. OK, so that last one isn’t so bad.

Still, it’s nice to come home and grab for a handful of these sweet little nut clusters. It seems to put a band-aid on almost every Paleo-induced side effect. Carb cravings. Candy cravings. That unpleasant, heartburn-y, “queasy from eating too many raw, undressed vegetables” pit-in-my-stomach feeling (am I the only one that gets this, by the way?)

Best of all, it’s super easy and arguably pretty healthy. Cavemen (and women)—forage your nuts!

(Told you this diet was getting to me …)

paleo nuts 2

Paleo honey nut clusters

You’ll need:

1 cup almonds

1 cup walnuts

1 cup cashews

1 tbsp flax seeds

1/3 cup honey

1/2 tsp vanilla

Crush (or blend) almonds, walnuts and cashews, leaving some larger chunks and whole nuts. Set aside.

Heat honey and vanilla on medium heat until melted.

Toss in nuts and flax, coat well and spread (about an inch thick) into a baking dish.

Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes or until nuts start to brown.

Allow to cool and store in fridge or in a cool, dry place.

paleo granola bars

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