Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Win it Wednesday: ALDI Gift Basket Giveaway

It's time to kick off the holiday season! Let's get festive - one of the many exciting things I did when I visited ALDI headquarters last month was tour the amazing products they've got in store for the holiday season. There's just so much giftable good stuff going on there, from crispy pizelle cookies to caramel-filled stroopwafels and truffles. Plus, the wine selection at ALDI is incredible. Think prize-wining offerings, all under $15. With only 4-6 aisles at any given location, it's pretty easy to buzz through an ALDI to put together a quick hostess or teacher's gift without a lot of fuss or expense.

If you'd like to try before you buy, this giveaway is just for you. I gathered an assortment of cookies, chocolates, sweet bites and surprises to giveaway to one lucky reader. The wine pictured will be replaced with a giftcard to pick out your own bottle at your neighborhood ALDI. Imagine how nice it would be to get this on your doorstep this holiday season. Nothing brightens my day more than chocolate, so enter now to win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

RaffleCopter will randomly select one winner on Dec. 3. Good luck!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

#WhatsGoodNow: A Winter Tasting at Seasons 52 Chicago

Ah, I love Seasons 52. It's healthy, locally sourced and seasonally available, with a new menu every week. Every season, however, new dishes are rotated onto the menu to highlight the tastes of the season, hence the name. The Chicago location is also under new management, so I got a first look at what to expect now. Everything here is available on the menu now, until the next season rolls out. While I enjoyed a free meal, the opinions are all my own. We started with wine, the seasonal cocktail and the new flatbread.

The cocktail this season is a cranberry sage number featuring gin, cranberry juice, lime and a candied sage leaf. I appreciated that it wasn't too sweet but still packed a punch. The seasonal flatbread featured braised shortrib and aged cheddar. It was light and savory at the same time, providing just a taste of beef coupled with horseradish cream and micro cilantro. I also sampled the grilled garlic pesto flatbread, which was my favorite. The balsamic onions and roasted peppers really brought it together.

Next up, appetizers. This season features a black and white lobster ravioli with squid ink and egg pasta, topped with a sherry lobster sauce. It was a great opening for good things to come.

We had to try a salad, and out waiter suggested the warm arugula and mushroom salad. It was topped with truffle dressing and Parmesan shavings, which melted into the warm mushrooms for a surprisingly fulfilling flavor profile.

We also sampled the duck wing lollipops, which packed quite the punch with a Korean red chili glaze. So much so that it called for another beverage.

The New Old Fashioned is a beautiful drink, as it's served with the craft bourbon on the side so you can sample the cherry apple bitters separately and add more as desired. It's also served with a rock candy stirrer.

The best thing I ate all night was the Asian-glazed Chilean sea bass, which was served atop organic black rice, snow peas, shitake mushrooms and micro wasabe. It was a stand out that I would order again and again.

And because no meal is complete without dessert, Seasons 52 features microdesserts served in shotglasses that are the perfect amount of sweet to finish out a meal. I've done this more than once, and my favorite dessert is the ultimate smores cup. It has all things chocolate topped with a toasted marshmallow. I have tried all the rest, in the interest of journalistic integrity, and this is the best.

Thanks for a wonderful winter tasting, Seasons 52!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Three Things Thursday

1. Remember the game Mall Madness? I asked for it for Christmas two years before I got it, because it's a ridiculously complicated set up with a million pieces that was pricey even when I was 9. I played it this week and went online to try and buy some of the missing parts. Apparently in good condition, this is worth $300. I should have been nicer to my toys.

 2. I'm on my final day of Social Media Week Chicago in the Merchandise Mart, learning about perfecting my professional skills for staying social. Other than commuting downtown daily, it's been a great experience. My favorite insight: The ROI of social media is that your business will continue to exist in five years. Let that one sink in.

3. I went to Target to buy Christmas lights and was immediately reminded of why I don't go to Target. I ended up with a skirt, jeans, underwear and a cake plate, before I ever got to the lights. There was room in the budget and it keeps me from splurging on completely useless stuff, but still. Those lights made an an expensive "just running in" trip.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

My Day at ALDI

I am living the dream, folks. It’s been a hot minute since I wrote about how to shop at ALDI, but I’ve been an almost-exclusive ALDI shopper for most of my adulthood. It’s a matter of priorities – if I save money on food costs for identical products, I can spend that money better elsewhere on evenings out, mini vacations and other splurges that make my life feel luxurious. It’s also how I’m able to host Sunday dinners without much expense, and how I can grocery shop without a list most weeks.
I’ll stop gushing now.

Anyhow, I’ve always wanted to tour the ALDI test kitchens. I enviously read other bloggers’ accounts of the delectable food, pristine kitchens and helpful kitchen secrets. Finally, I was one of the chosen ones! My mother is so proud that years of ALDI shopping and blogging have finally paid off.

The first thing we did was tour the ALDI store in Geneva, IL., which is the closest location to headquarters. It’s almost identical to the newest ALDI location near me, except with perhaps an additional aisle. I saw all of my favorites there, along with a few more seasonal buys. 

We discussed how ALDI saves consumers’ money – by not taking credit cards and having to pass that cost onto consumers, with shopping carts that require a quarter so they don’t have to pay people to retrieve carts, by having multiple UPC codes on items to speed up check out and creating shipping solutions that also function as displays to eliminate the cost of stocking shelves. It really is a feat of engineering to see all the different ideas they come up with to save cash. For example, almost every ALDI lay out is identical so that employees working at a different location know where things are, and so warehouses can ship merchandise in a manner that reduced the amount of running around employees have to do to restock.

After the tour, we all headed over to ALDI’s headquarters, a tourist destination for maybe only me, but still. It was fully decked out for the holidays and we started in the Test Kitchen. We had a head-to-head blind taste test of ALDI products versus nationally available items (think ALDI Greek yogurt v. Chobani). 

Every item in the store undergoes rigorous blind taste tests at least twice a year that were far more in-depth than what we delighted in, but in this scenario, we just selected our favorites. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t have a huge basis for comparison or my palate isn’t that nuanced, but some products I couldn’t taste a difference at all. With the yogurt, for example, one tasted creamier and sweeter to me, but I wouldn't say I prefer it. From tortilla chips to orange juice, the main message was that by switching to the ALDI brand, consumers can save 28 to 65 percent.

From there, we went on to enjoy holiday d├ęcor and entertaining tips, which I can’t wait to share soon! Stay tuned my friends ….  

Monday, November 16, 2015

An Evening at Earls Kitchen + Bar, Part 2

After savoring our appetizers and enjoying a few delicious artisan cocktails featuring house-made syrups and clever glassware at Earls Kitchen + Bar, we were on to the main course. Which, admittedly, we were all starting to get full, but I never let that stop me from enjoying a gourmet meal. At the suggestion of Chef Luke, we agreed to split a few entrees. He said the chimichurri flank steak was his creation, and the bibimbap was a popular offering featuring a house-made sauce people couldn't get enough of.

The man was right. It was incredible. The bibimbap is served in a heated bowl with a soft-cooked egg on top. To serve, you cut up the egg, mix the ingredients and press it against the sides of the bowl to sear the rice and cook the egg. The sauce was slightly tangy, which went well with the creamy egg york. We opted for chicken, which was a wise choice coupled with the rest of our meat-tastic meal. 

In addition to the steak and bibimbap, we decided on the trip downtown we needed ribs in the most primal of ways. This set fell off the bone and boasted a homemade barbecue sauce. It was also paired with a warm potato salad and coleslaw. I'm not usually a huge coleslaw person, but this was refreshingly crunchy and so fresh I couldn't resist.

The steak was also a very interesting entree. It was rather tender and cooked atop a homemade chimichurri sauce, which I love. There were also a few roasted potatoes and tomatoes nestled into the skillet that rounded out the dish nicely.

And despite having more than enough to eat, I never say no to dessert. Ever. I have an extra stomach just for the occasion. Again, we shared, so don't think I'm a total glutton. We started with the pumpkin pie - it had the most amazing crust. I need lessons. It was topped with fresh whipped cream and a cinnamon-sugar sprinkle.

I may be basic and love pumpkin, but my heart belongs to chocolate. This sticky toffee pudding cake was just unreal. It was a warm cake topped with chocolate and toffee sauces, served aside vanilla bean ice cream ensconced in a candy snap basket.

I was so full, but I regret nothing. What I loved about #EarlsLincoln in addition to the food and drinks was the atmosphere. It would be a great place to snag an after-work drink, as well as have a first date. The layout is such that it almost feels like there are two dining areas, each with a specific ambiance. There's also outdoor dining that I can't wait to go back and enjoy, including a fire pit and insulated nearly year-round patio options. Sounds like a cozy brunch destination, indeed!

Friday, November 13, 2015

A Night at Earls Kitchen + Bar Lincoln Park, Part 1

This week was incredible - I got an invite a while back to the grand opening of Earls Kitchen + Bar in Lincoln Park but was unable to attend. I was bummed because it looked tasty, but lucky for me, I was still on the list. Several bloggers visited the upscale casual restaurant this week to take a behind-the-scenes look at what makes this place different. If I had to boil down all the reasons, I'd say quality and care. The quality of the food and the care in the preparation is only matched by the care taken to create an ambiance befitting the food. While it is a chain with a ton of locations in Canada, it's a family-owned business that's new to Chicago.

Let's start with the decor. The art was selected to reflect the locale, and the bar was specifically constructed to ensure an unobstructed view. This particular piece has a patina finish created with sea water from Canada, where the place hails from. The trumpets are in a sound wave taken from a three-second snippet of "Hello, Dolly!".

The kitchen is just the same, basically putting food prep on display. It looks like a ton of people because the manager, Brad, explained he had somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 people in from various locations to train the new staff.

I got to check out the walk-in cooler, too, which features wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling homemade creations and sauces. Everything is meticulously labeled to maximize freshness.

Every dish is cooked on demand to order, with the prep chefs starting at 5:30 a.m. for a day of service. Earls pickles their own items and creates all the simple syrups for cocktails, which each feature whimsical glassware and garnishes.

There are some truly innovative cocktails on the Earls menu. Perhaps my favorite was the Lemon Meringue, which is in the top left of the images above. It was incredibly smooth and satisfying - basically a dessert in a cup. It was a frozen cocktail featuring limoncello and skyy vodka, then topped with meringue fluff that was bruleed for good measure. On the right, my table also sampled the Silly Wabbit, Cabin Fever and Bees Knees. I loved that the honey cocktail was served in a glass reminiscent of a bottle of honey, and my cabin fever tasted like Christmas in Hawaii.

As for appetizers, the photo in the middle is the roasted corn and poblano cheese dip. It has a creamy cheese profile that's highlighted by the specks of roasted corn, which accompany the salted Navajo-style fried bread. Luke, the chef, explained it as Earls' answer to the tired queso or spinach dip with tortilla chip option. My table also sampled tuna toastadas, which coupled lightly seared tuna with fresh avocado atop a crispy corn tortilla complemented with crunchy jicama slaw. I couldn't pass up an opportunity to enjoy sushi, and this dynamite shrimp roll did not disappoint. Additionally, we sampled the hot wings and the Korean-style wings, which were a great departure from typical bar offerings. The homemade sauces and custom garnishes made all the difference.

This is already loooong, so tune in tomorrow as I talk entrees and desserts. Of course, you can get a preview of what I tasted if you follow me on Instagram.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Three Things Thursday

1. I went to an amazing event at Goose Island Clybourn Monday. It was a clear the cellar event in which you gave your top choices to the waitress, and then they brought out the bottles that were available. There were only four bottles of Rare, and I didn't get one, but I still got to taste it! It was basically the most over the top, decadent collection of coveted stouts I've ever had. Plus, they had half-priced appetizers, which I made quick work of. Try the hummus, it's great. 

2. I've complained about how sick I was before, but I genuinely think I cracked a rib. The pain has been pervasive, impacting my ability to run outside in a big way. When I was laying in bed last night, I noted a pretty substantial knot in my ribcage, right about where it's been killing me for almost a week. I'm guessing there's no treatment for a broken rib, so I'll just keep soldiering on and hoping for the best.

3. My mom got me a Nest Learning Thermostat for my birthday and I'm a little obsessed with it. I love that I can turn on the heat and the fan from afar, as well as see my energy consumption and set an auto-away status. It's fabulous. I might write a whole post about this gem.