stolen tulips & bbq chicken salad

It was Mother's Day 2007. Stephen and I had been married just over a year and living in a spacious but sketchy apartment in the suburbs of Chicago. We invited my parents, my brother and his wife, and both of my grandmas into our apartment for a three-tiered tower of various bruschetta and an absurd amount of this salad.

California Pizza Kitchen had been a family favorite in my childhood home, and despite the extensive pizza offerings on their menu, my mom always gravitated toward this salad. I was able to hunt down the recipe, and it was a perfect choice for Mother's Day lunch.

Stephen and I decorated our tiny table with a lovely, yet stolen, bouquet of purple tulips. I do not condone stolen tulips, but our budget barely left room for chicken breasts let alone fresh flowers. So we got creative - or perhaps unlawful. There was a community of "luxury" townhomes nearby with an enormous display of tulips surrounding their entrance sign. On our way home from church (from church!), Stephen pulled into the entrance and u-turned around the large island of tulips, setting up our car for a quick getaway. He sprung into action, flying out of the driver's side door and yanking up tulips in a manic fashion. He dove back into the car with a mass of flowers clutched against his chest, threw them in my direction, and squealed out as he shut his door. I was stunned by the speed and agility I had just witnessed.

I started to wonder if he had stolen tulips before.

2007 Mother's Day.jpg

We were so cute. You see those purple tulips? I didn't pay for those...


BBQ Chicken Salad: Adapted from California Pizza Kitchen

Serves 4 as a main dish

The chicken in this salad is best served cold, so I would recommend grilling it the night before or earlier in the day. However, I don't always plan ahead that well. The salad will still be delicious if your chicken is warm or room temperature.

Also, the fried tortilla chips are fun to make at home and can be made ahead of time; however, if the idea of making your own tortilla strips is a total turnoff, you can buy these in bags at the grocery story. No shame.

Grilled Chicken

  • 4 boneless chicken breasts

  • 1/2 tablespoon olive oil

  • 1/2 tablespoon minced garlic

  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce

  • 2 teaspoons salt

  • about 1/4 cup of your favorite BBQ sauce

Get your grill set for medium heat.

Mix the olive oil, garlic, soy sauce, and salt. Pour over the chicken and let it marinade at room temperature for about 15 minutes.

Grill the chicken until cooked through, about 5-6 minutes on each side.

Let the chicken cool and cut it into cubes. Toss with BBQ sauce and keep chilled. 

Tortilla Strips

  • about 12 corn tortillas, cut into 1/2 inch wide strips

  • vegetable or canola oil for deep frying

Using a heavy frying pan, heat a couple inches of oil. Carefully add strips and submerge into the oil with a metal slotted spoon. Do not overcrowd the pan. Fry until golden brown, 1-2 minutes. Carefully lift out of the oil using a slotted spoon and let them drain on a paper towel.


  • 1/2 head iceberg lettuce, cleaned, dried, and chopped

  • 1/2 head Romaine lettuce, cleaned, dried and chopped

  • 12 large basil leaves, chopped

  • 1 pound jicama, cut into matchsticks (see below)

  • 1-2 cups shredded monterey jack cheese

  • 1 can black beans, rinsed and drained

  • 1 can sweet corn, rinsed and drained (even better if you grill some corn alongside the chicken!)

  • big handful chopped cilantro

  • 1 pound tomatoes, diced - or cherry tomatoes cut in half

  • about 1/2 cup of your favorite BBQ sauce

  • about 1 cup of your favorite ranch dressing

***I buy jicama in the produce section at Kroger, so hopefully you can find it at your grocery store. It is a large, round root vegetable that looks similar to a turnip. However, its flavor and texture is somewhere between a potato and pear. Just try it. You'll like it.

To assemble the salad, mix the lettuce, basil, jicama, cheese, black beans, corn, cilantro, ranch dressing, and half the tortilla strips. Top the salad with tomatoes, chicken, the rest of the tortilla strips and drizzle with BBQ sauce.

BBQ salad 1.jpg

And I would like to formally apologize to the fancy townhome community down the road from Country Glenn Apartments in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

We should not have stolen your beautiful tulips, even if there were hundreds.

Even if we had no money.

Even if it was Mother's Day.

Even if the entrance sign by our apartments only had cigarette buds and old condoms.

No excuses.

I'm sorry, and I owe you some tulips.

Or some BBQ chicken salad.

P.S. This is another except from the book I am writing for my children.


ricotta surprise

In my last post, I promised one more of our early free cable favorites. This pasta dish is the only early favorite that has stood the test of time. Ten years later, and it still makes regular appearances around the table.

Under most circumstances, I advise against dishes with the word "surprise" in the title; however, when the surprise is a large dollop of lemony ricotta cheese hidden under a pile of sausage, broccoli, and pasta, you have nothing to fear!

 Ricotta Surprise

  • salt and pepper

  • 1 pound short-cut pasta

  • 1 cup ricotta cheese

  • zest and juice of 1 lemon

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 1 pound Italian sausage - mild, sweet, spicy, whatever you prefer

  • 1 large head of broccoli

  • 1 onion, chopped

  • 4 garlic cloves, minced

  • pinch of red pepper flakes

  • 1 1/2 cups chicken stock

  • big handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

  • big handful of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and while you're waiting, get to work on a few other things.

In a small bowl, combine the ricotta, lemon zest, pinch of salt, and lots of pepper. Set this aside to come to room temperature.

Preheat a large skillet over medium-high heat with olive oil. Add the sausage and break it into small pieces with a wooden spoon. Cook the meat until brown, about 5 minutes. Brown bits should be forming on the bottom of the pan. This is good news.

While the sausage is browning, cut the broccoli tops into small florets.

By this time, your water should be ready for salt and pasta. Cook the pasta until al dente. Before you drain the pasta, scoop up a cupful of the starchy cooking water to use later for the sauce.

Once the sausage is brown, remove it to a paper towel-line plate. Return the skillet to the heat and add all of the broccoli and onion. Spread the veggies out in an even layer, season with salt and pepper, and let the broccoli brown up a bit, about 2 minutes.

Add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Keep cooking a few minutes more.

Add the sausage back to the skillet along with the stock. Ladle in some of that starchy cooking water you saved, and bring it to a simmer. Don't forget to scrap up all those yummy brown bits.

Cook until the broccoli is tender and the liquids have reduced, about 2 minutes.

Add lemon juice, parsley, and drained pasta. Toss to combine and simmer another minute, allowing the pasta to soak in all that yummy sauce. Turn off the heat, add the cheese, and toss again.

Now, here's the fun part! To serve, place a large dollop of the ricotta mixture in the bottom of each bowl and bury it with hot pasta.

 I love surprises.


I owe it all to free cable

I'm writing a book.

Sort of.

I was taught to begin my writing with a strong lead in order to hook my reader, so I attempted a more dramatic approach there. Did it work? Are you hooked? But perhaps a more accurate statement would be: I am making a gift for my children.

If you hang around this place for a few minutes, you will learn of my love for mashing food, recipes, and storytelling. In our home, food sparks memories, and memories spark stories.

This first book is filled with meals and stories of our life before children - the years Stephen and I learned to cook together, party plan together, and open our home and table. I have such a soft spot in my heart for those years because they were the beginning. We were figuring out marriage, adulthood, eating without the Taylor University Dining Commons. We were creating family routines that became such a part of us I can still see them 12 years later.

I want to remember those years.

I want to remember those meals.

I want my children to peek into that first kitchen to see the disasters and the delicious.

The book will begin with a section entitled I Owe It All to Free Cable, the story of how it all began.

Take a look.


I don't have an exact memory of the day we plugged my brother's old, college television into the wall. I suspect it was sometime in early December 2005 as we moved a mix of elegant wedding presents and hand-me-down necessities into a spacious but shady two-bedroom apartment in Arlington Heights. I don't think we initially realized we had inherited cable from the former tenants, and if so, we probably thought it would disappear by the end of the month, or a bill we certainly couldn't afford would soon arrive. 

Both of us had grown up in cable-less homes, so we didn't have favorite shows or channels. It probably wasn't until mid-January that I stumbled upon a cooking show.  I was ignorant to the fact that there was entire channel dedicated to food, and I certainly had never heard of this up-and-coming Food Network star, Rachael Ray. Her spunk and colorful kitchen were an initial draw for me as I watched her prepare a citrus salmon with green beans. I'd only caught the tail end of this 30 Minute Meal show but jotted down enough to help me find this recipe in one of her cookbooks. (We didn't have Internet, so I sat on the floor of Barnes & Noble flipping through each of Rachael's books until I found the citrus salmon.) To my delight, a second episode of this 30 Minute Meal show came on, and I diligently wrote down every detail for her Cornbread Pizza. 

This was the start of my love affair with the kitchen. 

Everyday from 5-6 pm, I would faithfully watch Rachael prepare gourmet feasts in thirty minutes, all the while learning the basics of the kitchen. I learned to cut an onion, dice a pepper, and mince garlic. Prior to this, I couldn't have picked a garlic clove out of a line up. I began buying fresh herbs, working alongside a garbage bowl, and utilizing multiple burners at at time. I learned to butterfly a chicken breast, indent the middle of a burger before grilling, and watch carefully when placing a cheesy casserole under the broiler. Who knew ovens had broilers?

I'd built up a solid collection of recipes by the time the cable company caught on to our free ride and cut us off. 

Those first few years, I relied heavily on Rachael's cookbooks. On our first anniversary, your dad and I waited in line for a picture and autograph with Rachael. I was too starstruck to tell her she'd changed my life, which is somewhat dramatic but also true. Although I don't use many of Rachael's recipes anymore, the following recipes will always hold a special place in my heart - and belly - because they were some of the first. 

R Ray.jpg

For your dad and I, the kitchen became our special place. We have never had a fancy kitchen, but we have always had a full kitchen and a delicious time attempting all sorts of culinary feats. 

I hope the same is true for you.


Pan-Seared Salmon with Citrus Vinegar Glaze and Green Beans

The recipe that started it all. 

  • 4 salmon fillets

  • olive oil for brushing the fillets

  • salt and pepper

  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (I have also used chicken broth)

  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

  • big splash of orange juice

  • small splash of lemon juice

  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar

  • 1 pound green beans, trimmed

  • orange and lemon rind slices

Preheat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high skillet. *See note below*

Open the wine, and pour yourself and anyone else in the kitchen a glass. Be sure there is 1/2 cup left for the glaze. 

Rinse the salmon under cold water and pat dry.

Brush each fillet with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Cook the salmon until just cooked through, about 3 minutes on each side.

At this point, I pop the skillet into a 350°F oven to finish cooking the fish for a few more minutes as I finish up the glaze and green beans.

While the salmon cooks, bring wine, vinegar, citrus juices, and brown sugar to a boil over high heat in a saucepan. Reduce the glaze for 3-4 minutes, until thickened. Remove from the heat, and stir in a good pitch of pepper.

To another skillet, add the green beans, orange and lemon rinds, and 1/2 inch of water. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook 3-4 minutes. Drain the beans and season with salt and pepper.

Drizzle the glaze over the salmon and serve the beans.

*Note* If you do not have a cast-iron skillet, any oven-proof skillet will do. However, it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity and tell you to buy a cast-iron skillet. It took me ten years to get one, and everything from pancakes, to brussels sprouts, to salmon tastes better cooked in that skillet. What a tragedy I will never get those years back.

Just add glaze. They'll love it. 

glaze 2.jpg

Check back next week for another favorite recipe from the early years.


orange chocolate cake and the power of parchment paper

Our daughter was just three months old when New Year's Eve 2012 came rolling around. After six years of hosting some pretty bumping New Year's Eve parties, Stephen and I weren't ready to throw in the towel and surrender to pjs and Chinese takeout just yet. Our childless and carefree friends graciously accommodated the needs of our newborn, and we decided on a progressive dinner that would end with dessert back at our place so I - I mean Charlotte - could be in bed at a reasonable hour.

I had been googly-eyed over this cake for about a year, waiting for just the right occasion to knock the socks off my guests. I envisioned cheering, applause, and maybe even chanting as I presented four layers of rich chocolate cake, oozing with whipped orange cream, slathered with chocolate-orange buttercream, and topped with candied orange peels. This would be the night. People would be talking about this cake for years to come, requesting Joy's Orange Chocolate Cake for birthdays, holiday parties, probably even a miniature version for an anniversary dinner.

No? Did I go too far?

I consider myself a semi-experienced baker, meaning I don't roll out fondant frosting, but I gave up boxed cakes years ago and surely know how to follow a recipe and beat some buttercream.

However, I have a bone to pick with recipe writers: if the recipe requires additional baking supplies, those items ought to be listed with the ingredients or at the very least, underlined, bolded, and printed in size sixteen font throughout the recipe.

You can tell where this is going.

December 31, 2012. Cake baking day was here.

I read through the ingredients - for the cake, the whipped cream, the buttercream, and the orange peels (Whew.) I made my list. I went to Kroger.

My ingredients were laid out. My apron was on. My three-month-old was sleeping. My recipe was opened. My oven was preheating.

Step 1: Preheat oven to 350° F. 

Already ahead of you.

Step 2: Line bottom of two 8" pans with a round of parchment paper.   

Parchment paper?

(Insert cuss word of your choosing.)

Looking back, I should have gotten in the car, driven back to Kroger and bought the parchment paper.

Better yet, I should have sent Stephen.

But if I had, there would no story to tell right now. No one wants to read about the four-tiered, picture-perfect chocolate cake I made on my very first try. Lame.

So alas, I plowed ahead sans parchment paper. Those cakes looked so good sitting in the pans, cooling on the wire rack. I wasn't even anticipating the disaster awaiting me. Fool.

Friends, hear me now, listen to me later. (My dad use to say that. I think it might be applicable here but am not totally sure.) You must use parchment paper if you want your cake to come out of a pan in one piece.

Mine did not. It came out in many pieces, crumbling in my hands, and falling onto the table. 

Cooking exposes a stubbornness I don't normally see in other areas of my life. I will rarely - perhaps never- trash a mistake and start over. Maybe it's the time I put in, more likely it's the money, but the thought of tossing that cake, buying parchment paper, and starting over never crossed my mind - nor did buying root beer and vanilla ice cream and calling it a day.

Instead, I stacked those four shattered cakes, piecing together crumbling bits, and counting on the orange whipping cream to hold it all together. I slathered the top with chocolate-orange buttercream and added the lovely finishing touch of candied orange peels. I mean, it just would look silly without the orange peels.

And when it was all done, it looked like this.

Photo courtesy of my trusty flip phone

Photo courtesy of my trusty flip phone



This is what I made.

And six hours later, I served it.

Do you think less of me right now? Or maybe more?

There wasn't the applause I'd imagined as I shamefully set that blob in the middle of the coffee table and handed out forks. But from there, we just went at it, kneeling around the table and allowing the cake to finally succumb to gravity.

We devoured every crumb of that imperfect mess, and it was amazing. It also caused me to question why I ever dirty more dishes by cutting individual slices.

There are great lessons to be learned from this - lessons about embracing imperfection, making the best of disappointment, surrounding yourself with friends who don't take life too seriously. Those are noble lessons but secondary to the real nugget of wisdom I am offering here.

Use the dog-gone parchment paper when you make cakes. Please. If you do, your cake will look like this. 

Ahhhh. Much better.

I will say up front that this cake is a labor of love, as is any amazing cake. Don't plan to bake this when you are also cooking a full dinner for guests. Make this for an occasion when dessert is your only responsibility.

Chocolate Orange Cake: Recipe from Little Red House

Chocolate Cake

*Note* This is my go-to chocolate cake even when I'm not piling it with orange goodness.

  • 2 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

  • 3/4 cup boiling water

  • 6 tablespoons butter, melted, plus more for the pans

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar

  • 2 eggs

  • 1 cup buttermilk

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

  • 1 1/4 cup cake flour (I have used all purpose flour, and it was still yummy!)

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt


Preheat your oven to 350°F.

Line 8" cake pans with parchment paper. Butter the paper and sides of the pan.

**Important Note** The originally recipe has four layers, but as you notice in the picture above, my cake only has three layers. Here is why: My cake pans are actually 9", so ever since that fateful day, I only make three layers for this cake. I'm pretty sure making four, super thin 9" layers contributed to the flimsiness of my cake. If your cake pans are 8", by all means make four layers. If your pans are 9",  I would highly recommend only three layers. Clear as mud? Good. Carry on.

In a bowl (I use a glass, liquid measuring cup), combine chocolate, boiling water, and cocoa powder. Let it stand, stirring occasional until the mixture is smooth.

In another bowl, mix your flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In another bowl, use an electric mixer to beat butter and sugar until combined.  Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until the color lightens -  about three minutes.

Slowly add buttermilk, vanilla, and chocolate mixture. Beat until well combined.

Add the flour mixture and beat until just combined.

Divide between your pans. This will be about 1 1/4 cup per pan if you are making four layers and closer to 2 cups per pan if you are only making three layers.

Bake for 12-15 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Repeat as needed depending on how many cake pans you own. 

Cool cakes completely before frosting.

Orange Whipping Cream

  • 2 cups whipping cream

  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar

  • 2 teaspoons orange extract

  • zest of 1 orange

  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Whip the cream on high speed until soft peaks begin to form.

Add the powdered sugar, orange and vanilla extract. Continue whipping until you reach a fluffy, creamy consistency.

Chocolate Orange Buttercream

  • 8 tablespoons butter

  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder

  • 2 cups powdered sugar

  • 1 teaspoon orange extract

  • a few tablespoons of milk

Beat butter, cocoa powder, powdered sugar, and orange extract. Add one tablespoon of milk at a time until you reach a consistency you like.

Candied Orange Peel

  • 1 orange

  • 1/2 cup sugar

Using a vegetable peeler, shred long strips of orange peel, and place them in a medium saucepan. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil over medium heat. Drain the water and repeat with fresh water two more times. This gets rids of the bitterness from the peel.

Place the sugar in a clean saucepan with 1 cup of water. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved.

Add the orange strips to the boiling syrup and reduce the heat.

Let the strips simmer for about twelve minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the strips cool in the syrup at least one hour. Remove from the syrup when ready to use.

Assemble the Cake


Whipping cream


Whipping cream

{Optional layer of cake}

{Optional layer of whipping cream}



Candied orange peel

P.S. Despite the fact that Sheena did not underline and bold the words parchment paper, her recipes are some of my all time favorites on the world wide web. I wrote about another one of her cakes on this post. She taught me to make homemade Greek yogurt, Lara bars, and a lot of really good tacos. I have never made a recipe I didn't love. Check her out.

Happy Christmas from 44 & Oxford!

Totally busted by the four-year-old during the photo shoot.

Totally busted by the four-year-old during the photo shoot.


What whipped cream?