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DIY/ Events & Entertaining

Do Green. Do Good. Chicago Flower & Garden Show Feels So Good!

Collective Bias Social Fabric

The Chicago Flower & Garden Show, presented by Mariano’s, is a much-needed reminder that spring will (eventually) get here. The Chicago Flower & Garden Show, which dates back to 1847, is all about inspiring people to “think green.” That may be to plant a vegetable garden or simply spend more time outdoors every day enjoying nature.  The theme of this year’s show (March 15 – 23, 2014, at Navy Pier) is Do Green. Do Good. 

The show is HUGE with over 20 inspirational gardens, a kids’ activities garden, culinary demonstrations, and the Marketplace filled with over 100 vendors. #MyMarianos is the official Flower Market at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show. But I was ready to explore the vast indoor landscape on this #shop for #CollectiveBias; I had on my sneakers and took my antihistamine/decongestant at breakfast. Let the hunt for floral inspiration begin!

One of my favorite flowering plants is an orchid. And there were so many beautiful colors on display. Orchids look very delicate, very simple – yet they make a big statement to any decor. If my pugs didn’t have impulse control issues (especially with anything that could be perceived to be food), I’d have orchids galore throughout my house.

#MyMarianos Flower Market #CollectiveBias #shop Chicago Flower & Garden Show

The colors of all the flowers on display were so vibrant, even indoors under artificial lighting. I guess there’s no way to hide nature’s true beauty.

#MyMarianos Flower Market #CollectiveBias #shop Chicago Flower & Garden Show

I didn’t do an official count, but I think I saw more tulips at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show than I did during my entire trip to Amsterdam.

#MyMarianos Flower Market #CollectiveBias #shop Chicago Flower & Garden Show

And who knew roses could get to be 5 feet tall!?!

#MyMarianos Flower Market #CollectiveBias #shop Chicago Flower & Garden Show

5-foot tall roses at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show!

This may shock you. [insert dramatic pause] But as a food blogger, I like talking with and learning from chefs and cooks. Each year, the Chicago Flower & Garden Show has a Garden Gourmet program with over 24 Chicago chefs sharing their best recipes that feature fresh-from-the-garden ingredients. Kicking off this year was Chef Bill Kim, the owner of Urbanbelly, bellyQ and Belly Shack. Chef Kim is also one of Mariano’s TasteMakers. He shared a recipe for Edamame Hummus that takes less than 10 minutes to make. Click for a complete list of participating chefs and Garden Gourmet demonstration dates/times.

Chicago Flower & Garden Show Tips

After a great morning at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show and with fresh flowers from Mariano’s Flower Market in hand, I headed home to see if I could put into practice what I learned. Here are some of the best tips I picked up from the floral design experts at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show:

  1. Reduce, Reuse: No space is too small to benefit from fresh flowers and plants. And there’s no need to purchase fancy vases; you can reuse everyday containers from your kitchen or pantry. I used my tall mixing bowl that came with my immersion blender (see image below) to add a pop of contemporary color for the arrangement I made for my dining room table.
  2. Get On The Grid: Place scotch tape over the top of the vase in a grid format. This helps to keep flowers in place and guide you in creating a more evenly spaced arrangement. No need for marbles or foam in the bottom of the vase.
  3. It’s Okay to Ask For Help: You’re not expected to know everything, and there are plenty of professionals who are glad to help. The staff at Mariano’s Flower Market inside the Chicago Flower & Garden Show were helpful and knowledgeable. Admittedly, I’m more confident in working with plants over fresh flowers – but they encouraged me to give a try at my own fresh flower arrangement. My insurance policy: I walked away with a palm-sized “do it yourself with Mariano’s” card with tips and instructions for how to create this look at home.
#MyMarianos Flower Market #CollectiveBias #shop Chicago Flower & Garden Show

Make a grid with scotch tape across the top of your vase to make arranging much easier.

After cutting the stems to similar heights and prepping the vessel, here’s what I came up with. What do you think? Not too bad for a newbie, if I say so myself. I obviously still have more to learn about flower arrangements, but I was proud of the effort. And the ambiance created by fresh flowers really makes a difference: my morning coffee and every meal is now so much more enjoyable.

In the past, I would periodically get flowers at Mariano’s while on a shopping adventure. I think they’ve got the best produce in town and – not to scare you, but – I’d live inside their bakery if the Health Department allowed such a thing. But my day at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show reminded me that it’s important to appreciate beauty and to let beauty into your life each day. That doesn’t always “just happen;” you have to take responsibility to make it happen for yourself. And flowers at Mariano’s is an easy way to regularly bring nature’s beauty into my home and onto my table.

#MyMarianos Flower Market #CollectiveBias #shop Chicago Flower & Garden Show

The Chicago Flower & Garden Show runs through Sunday, March 23. You can purchase tickets online or at the Navy Pier box office. If you’ve never been, I highly recommend it. And all the great floral varieties you see at the Mariano’s Flower Market inside the show are also available in your local Mariano’s store. Stay connected with Mariano’s Floral Department via Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest.

Entrees/ Events & Entertaining

Find the perfect match for your Valentine’s Day menu at Mariano’s Chicago bakery

#MyMarianos, #CollectiveBias, #shop

Collective Bias Social Fabric

What's cookin' good lookin' #shop #MyMarianos slow cooker coq au vin

Does Valentine’s Day stress you out? Do you find yourself running around to every grocery store in Chicago, or calling every Chicago bakery on Yelp, to find the right romantic dessert for your sweetie? Well, stop it. Take 3 deep breaths, and just stop for a moment. You’re in need of a Valentine’s Day smack down – given out of love, of course! I totally understand because we’ve all been there before. With so many options and such high expectations (that we force upon ourselves), it can be challenging to know where to begin.

Valentine’s Day is not about how much money you spend on the one you love. It’s not about mindlessly following the crowd to celebrate the heart-iest of holidays with the masses. In the same way each relationship is unique, the way you honor your significant other and the way you celebrate Valentine’s Day together should reflect the uniqueness of the relationship you share.

I don’t like crowds, so spending Valentine’s Day with the rest of Chicago crammed inside a busy restaurant can cause a panic attack. For me, nothing speaks louder than thoughtful actions…like a quiet, home-cooked meal that reflects a shared experience. One easy way to create a Valentine’s Day menu is to build it around a theme like your favorite destination as a couple. Personally, I adore Chicago; that’s why I live here. But Paris is hands-down the most romantic city I’ve ever experienced. There is literally romance in the air throughout the City of Lights.

So for Valentine’s Day this year, I want to bring a bit of Paris into my home. Mariano’s makes that easy to do. I’m going to make a slow cooker coq au vin recipe for dinner using fresh poultry and produce from #MyMarianos. And with my Mariano’s Rewards Card in hand, I’ll supplement everything else (including flowers and wine) that I need for a romantic Valentine’s Day breakfast and dinner at home with items from the Mariano’s Bakery, Deli, International Market, Liquor and Floral departments.

Parisian all-butter croissants #MyMarianos #shop #CollectiveBias slow cooker coq au vin

In the Bakery Department, I picked up some Parisian all-butter croissants for breakfast and chocolate mousse cups for dessert. My Valentine’s Day authentic Parisian breakfast will start with:

  • French roast coffee with cream (French vanilla flavor, maybe?!)
  • orange juice
  • Mariano’s all-butter croissants
  • Bonne Maman® blackberry preserves
  • fresh blackberries from Mariano’s produce department

And don’t forget the butter! French cuisine focuses on simple, high-quality ingredients. If you’re going to have croissants made with real butter, then enjoy real butter ON them as well. Warm the croissants before serving, and consider having breakfast in bed for an indulgent start to Valentine’s Day. Oui, oui!

Slow Cooker Coq Au Vin

This recipe for slow cooker coq au vin is perfect for Valentine’s Day dinner because it only takes 20 minutes to prep; it’s easy to assemble before you head out the door for work. It cooks all day (8 hours), so it will be ready to enjoy with your sweetie when you get home. All of the ingredients for my authentic Parisian dinner menu are available at Mariano’s including:

Entrée / Side Dish
  • slow cooker coq au vin, with chicken breast, button mushrooms, pearl onions and baby carrots
  • Parisian parsley potatoes (recipe below)
  • chocolate mousse cups from Mariano’s Bakery
Drink and Table Décor
  • wine (at least 2 bottles of red, white or sparkling) from Mariano’s Liquor Department
  • bouquet of flowers from Mariano’s Floral Department

Most of the slow cooker coq au vin ingredients I purchased on this #CollectiveBias #shop at Mariano’s were already fully prepped, except for the carrots. To give your carrots a bit of sophistication (yes, carrots can have sophistication!), cut them on the diagonal. It’s a simple trick that makes them look a bit more special.

slow cooker coq au vin diced carrots and button mushrooms #MyMarianos #shop #CollectiveBias

Valentine’s Day Menu Ideas

ooh la la - Parisian parsley potatoes are the perfect side dish for slow cooker coq au vin #shopA traditional side dish served with slow cooker coq au vin would be Parisian Parsley Potatoes. This recipe takes about 30 minutes to cook and it continues the buttery decadence that Parisian food embraces. A definite must to add to your Valentine’s Day menu.

Coq au vin would normally use a Burgundy (red) wine but this recipe uses a white wine. There are variations of coq au vin that also use champagne. Use whichever you prefer. My suggestion is to buy 2 bottles of your favorite wine. Pour one cup into the slow cooker (that’s all it takes) when you’re ready to start cooking and save the rest for your dinner.

My Valentine’s Day menu is obviously inspired by Paris. But maybe another global destination holds a more romantic meaning for you and yours. Did you honeymoon in Italy or meet the love of your life in the Mediterranean? Mariano’s Bakery (my favorite department within the store!) has hand-made Italian cookies, biscotti and cannoli. And across the aisle at Mariano’s Deli you’ll find big, beautiful Greek olives and a variety of Mediterranean salads. The point is to fill your Valentine’s Day menu with items that have meaning for you.

Still need some inspiration? Just take a stroll in Mariano’s International Market aisles. Mariano’s has items from Italian, Hispanic, Asian, Polish, Kosher, Indian, Mediterranean, German, Eastern European, British and Southern cuisines. It’s the supermarket version of around the world in 80 plates! And any of these global goodies would be a perfect match for your Valentine’s Day menu.

Mariano's international market #MyMarianos #CollectiveBias #shop slow cooker coq au vin

If you know what kind of cuisine you want to prepare but you don’t know what wine or cheese to pair and serve, Mariano’s has a team of people who are ready with suggestions. They even have a Wine & Cheese pairings area in the store to kick-start your brainstorming.

Ideas and inspiration are plentiful at Mariano’s; that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy shopping there so much. It’s not just a grocery store. For foodies, it’s like an adventure theme park filled with all kinds of deliciousness. And when I’m not inside my local Mariano’s store, I stay connected to get ideas by following #MyMarianos on social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

What are you planning for your Valentine’s Day menu? Or if the proverbial oven mitt were on your significant other’s other hand, what dish would you want them to be making just for you?

Slow Cooker Coq au Vin

Rating: 51

20 minutes

Cook Time: 8 hours

Yield: 2 servings

Slow Cooker Coq au Vin


6 ounces button mushrooms, cut in half
10 ounces pearl onions, frozen
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
salt and pepper for seasoning
1 medium onion, chopped
1 pound baby carrots, sliced on an angle in 3/4-inch pieces
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dry white wine (red wine works, too)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 cup chicken broth
4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces


In a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker, combine the mushrooms and pearl onions. Set aside.

Lightly season the chicken breasts (both sides) with salt and pepper. In a large nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil on medium high. Cook the chicken over medium-high heat until browned (about 10 minutes on each side). Place chicken over the vegetables in the slow cooker.

Using the skillet with the remaining drippings, add the chopped onion and sliced carrots. On medium heat, cook for 3 minutes or until the onion softens and becomes translucent. Stir frequently. Stir in the garlic and cook for 1 minute.

Add the wine, tomato paste and bay leaf. Heat to boiling, stirring to dissolve the tomato paste.

Pour the wine mixture, followed by the chicken broth, over the chicken breasts in the slow cooker. Cover the slow cooker and cook on low for 8 hours.

About 15 minutes before you're ready to plate, cook the bacon in the microwave using a microwave-safe plate. Put 8 paper towel sheets on the plate and top with the bacon slices. I recommend cutting the bacon AFTER the cooking process. Put 4 paper towel sheets on top of the bacon slices and cook, following manufacturer's directions. For my microwave, 4 slices of thick-cut bacon will cook in 5 to 6 minutes. Cook until crispy, then cut into 1-inch pieces.

Remove the bay leaf from the slow cooker. Transfer the chicken, vegetables and sauce to a deep serving platter or plate immediately on individual plates. Sprinkle each serving with bacon and enjoy.


Let this cook during the day while you're at work. But if you need to whip it up faster, you can cook it on HIGH for 3 to 4 hours.


Coconut-Mango Upside Down Baked French Toast, inspired by Disney’s The Jungle Book

featured image of coconut-mango upside down baked french toast #shop #JungleFresh

Collective Bias Social Fabric

I was 5 years old when Disney’s The Jungle Book premiered; it was the first movie I remember seeing in a theater as a child. It was a magical experience and the beginning of a life-long love of great cinema.

Like every kid who saw the movie, I wanted the happy-go-lucky Baloo to be my new best friend in much the same way he befriended Mowgli on his journey into the jungle. I remember singing “The Bare Necessities” so much that it  — or I? — became annoying to everyone around me. And there were so many interesting characters, like Kaa the sneaky snake or King Louie, a crazy orangutan. [I have an older brother Louis, so I could totally relate to that character.]

I was thrilled to learn that Disney is releasing a special Blu-Ray/DVD combo Diamond Edition of The Jungle Book on February 11, 2014, and you can get a free Jungle Book Lunch Box with the purchase of the Diamond Edition (exclusively at Walmart). So I headed off to my local Walmart to pick up some #JungleFresh produce for this #CollectiveBias #shop; I’m planning to make Coconut-Mango Upside Down Baked French Toast that my nieces and nephews are going to love when we watch The Jungle Book together for the first time.

Walmart has fresh, quality produce #shop #JungleFresh

fresh citrus at Walmart #shop #JungleFresh

mangos at Walmart #shop #JungleFresh

JungleFresh Shop Walmart papaya closeup

plantains at Walmart #shop #JungleFresh fresh produce

pummelos at Walmart #shop #JungleFresh

Walmart has really expanded its produce selections; I was surprised to see a strong variety of tropical fruits – including some I’ve never heard of before. I was focusing on mangos and coconut for this recipe but I also picked up a pummelo. I’d never seen one and didn’t know what it was or what it might be used for. Walmart has easy-to-ready signs for its produce that calls out some of the features and benefits of the ingredient, so I learned that pummelos are used in baking. Who knew? So that’s going to be an ingredient for a future recipe challenge!

organizing ingredients for coconut-mango upside down baked French toast #shop #JungleFresh

I got all my ingredients organized, including non-dairy coconut milk and orange-mango juice, to use in the recipe. I’ll also serve these beverages along with the Coconut-Mango Upside Down Baked French Toast.

toasting coconut for the coconut-mango upside down baked French toast #shop #JungleFresh

Toasting coconut flakes in a skillet takes only a few minutes, and the aroma is intoxicating.

slicing mango for the coconut-mango upside down baked French toast #shop #JungleFresh

If you’ve never done it before, slicing a mango can be a bit confusing. This video from the National Mango Board shows you how to cube or slice a mango. It’s surprisingly easy.

coconut-mango upside down baked French toast about to go into the oven #shop #JungleFresh

This is what all of the ingredients will look like inside the prepared pan before you pop it in the oven.

coconut-mango upside down baked french toast #shop #JungleFresh

And here’s what Coconut-Mango Upside Down Baked French Toast looks like on your plate! Topped with the toasted coconut flakes, sliced mango, and honey, the dish is plenty sweet without any additional condiments for me. But you may wish to dust it with some confectioners’ sugar. Any way you serve it up, it is soooooo good.

top the coconut-mango upside down baked French toast with confectioners' sugar, if desired, #shop #JungleFresh

Coconut-Mango Upside Down Baked French Toast

Rating: 51

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Coconut-Mango Upside Down Baked French Toast


1 cup unsweetened flaked coconut, toasted
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 mangos, thinly sliced
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup mango-orange juice
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
8 slices French bread, sliced 1-inch thick


Preheat your oven to 400 F degrees. Generously grease a 13x9-inch baking pan. Set aside.

Place the flaked coconut in a large skillet. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the flakes are mostly golden brown. Do not overcook.

In a small microwavable bowl, melt the butter. Then mix in the cinnamon, honey and toasted coconut. Pour this mixture into the prepared baking pan, spreading it to evenly coat the bottom of the pan. Space the sliced mango evenly over the coconut mixture.

In a shallow bowl, whisk together the eggs, vanilla, salt, juice and milk. Dip both sides of the French bread into the egg mixture, letting it soak up the liquid. Then place it in the prepared pan.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Invert onto a serving platter and serve immediately.

The coconut-mango upside down baked French toast is mildly sweet without any garnishes, but you may prefer to sprinkle confectioners' sugar on top or use your favorite syrup.


You could also prepare this the night before, all the way up through placing the French bread slices dipped in egg batter into the prepared pan. Securely wrap with plastic wrap overnight. Remove from the refrigerator while you're preheating the oven. Continue cooking as directed.

Kitchen Confessions

2014: Getting Back On Track with Lean Cuisine #WowThatsGood

Getting Back on Track with Lean Cuisine

Collective Bias Social Fabric

Are you still feeling a bit ‘hung over’ from the holidays? I am. It’s so easy to over indulge at family gatherings and social functions with sweets and other foods that are better for you in moderation. But feeling guilty isn’t going to solve anything. The hardest thing for me to do in any aspect of my life is to achieve balance. I’m usually an ‘all-in’ kind-of-guy, whether it’s at work, with family and friends – anything. Achieving balance within each part of my life and among each of those parts is a personal challenge for me. Especially when it comes to a balanced approach to eating. I want to start 2014 strong by making a conscious effort toward getting back on track. Nestle® has a number of products, especially an expanded line of Lean Cuisine® prepared foods, snacks and Skinny Cow® chocolates, that I’m going to lean on to make the process a little less daunting.

I practically lived on Lean Cuisine back in college, especially the Spaghetti & Meatballs and Meatloaf & Mashed Potatoes. They were affordable (important for a college student with no real income), well-portioned and quite tasty. After college, when I first started working in downtown Chicago’s Financial District, I depended on Lean Cuisine for a quick, affordable and satisfying lunch. Eating out everyday was expensive, and trying to get out of a skyscraper building just to grab a quick bite would take at least 20 minutes each way.  That’s anything BUT quick! And there weren’t many healthy options that were easily accessible, so Lean Cuisine was a great option. I remember stocking up my freezer with Lean Cuisine’s Swedish Meatballs at least once a month to have on hand for lunch at the office. And their French bread pizza was my go-to late night snack of choice!

Fast forward to 2014. While I want to be conscious of my meal choices, some things I’m not going to give up…like my morning coffee. Before I started using CoffeeMate®’s Sugar-Free French Vanilla creamer, I’d use sugar and half-and-half to create a cafe au lait concoction. But with Sugar-Free French Vanilla creamer, I don’t have to add anything else. That’s a great way to reduce some of the excess sugar that can sneak into your food and drink.

Nestle CoffeeMate French Vanilla Sugar Free Creamer

Getting Back On Track

One of the things that can shoot down any attempt to make better meal choices is poor planning. So I made myself a list of what I needed and headed off to my local Walmart to stock up my freezer. I was pleasantly surprised that in addition to the classic Lean Cuisine meals I have loved for years, there are several new cuisine lines featuring a staggering array of choices, including:

  • LEAN CUISINE® Morning Collection™ Turkey Sausage English Muffin [I can’t wait to try this!]
  • LEAN CUISINE® Simple Favorites™ Macaroni and Cheese
  • LEAN CUISINE® Wrap ADDITIONS™ Creamy Balsamic Chicken
  • LEAN CUISINE® Culinary Collection™ Sesame Chicken
  • LEAN CUISINE® Culinary Collection™ Three Cheese & Spinach Stuffed Pretzels 

Here are some of my favorite Lean Cuisine dishes, snacks and Skinny Cow chocolate treats. You can tell when you see them, and especially when you taste them, that they’re all made with quality ingredients.

Nestle SkinnyCow at Walmart

The Skinny Cow divine filled chocolates are available at Walmart. My favorite is the milk chocolate filled with caramel!

Lean Cuisine Culinary Collection Sesame Chicken

As you can see, the actual Lean Cuisine Sesame Chicken dish looks exactly like the image on the packaging (below).

 Lean Cuisine Culinary Collection Sesame Chicken packaging

See what I mean! And I could taste the top quality of the sesame breaded chicken tenderloins. #WowThatsGood
Lean Cuisine Wrap Additions Creamy Balsamic Chicken 1

It was fun putting together the creamy balsamic chicken wrap. It takes about 30 seconds to spread out the balsamic…

Lean Cuisine Wrap Additions Creamy Balsamic Chicken 2

…then add the Lean Cuisine chicken and veggies…and you’re ready to roll the wrap. There’s enough for two small wraps or one large wrap!

Lean Cuisine Culinary Collection 3 Cheese and Spinach Stuffed Pretzels

Every balanced meal program needs snack options. And I fell in love with these stuffed pretzels. They look a bit small right out of the package, but they puff while they’re being cooked in the microwave. Totally satisfying! Each box has two servings — just in case you want to share. Sharing is not mandatory!

Right now, Lean Cuisine is offering a 10-Day TRY-IT program which includes:

  • Personalized menu of 10 dishes via email
  • Lean Cuisine coupon for a buy-9-get-1-free offer via email
  • Access to a special offer Skinny Cow coupon (up to $5.49).
  • Entry into the Ultimate TRY-IT Sweepstakes for a chance to win $10,000

It’s simple to participate. Enjoy Lean Cuisine protein-packed dishes for 10 days. If you don’t feel great after 10 days, Lean Cuisine offers a money-back guarantee.

I’m on Day 3 of the 10-Day TRY-IT program, and so far my favorite has been the stuffed pretzels for a snack and the sesame chicken for lunch. Share your favorite Lean Cuisine dish in the comments section below, and let’s get back on track together!