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.

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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.

Salad

  • 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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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

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butternut squash soup

I know you're all going as fall crazy as I am, so it is with great pleasure that I add to your fall frenzy by bringing this pot of goodness into your lives. Our home will see a giant pot of this soup three to four times every fall. And when I say three to four, I really mean six to seven. I've already made it twice.

It makes my list of top-three-most-requested-recipes from all the happy people I feed it to. I make it for casual weeknight gatherings, bumping fall festivals, Thanksgiving dinner, and if you have a baby or a bad day anywhere between September and December, I will bring you this soup.

Unlike most butternut squash soups, this one stays chunky - no pureeing. In the end, your bowl doesn't look fancy or quite as photo friendly, but I have watched children and grown men plow through three bowls of this goodness.

You have to try it.

It's a recipe worthy memorizing, and with only six ingredients (plus salt) it can be a go-to for nights you are standing in the grocery store desperately coming up with a dinner plan. However, for the sake of complete honesty here at 44 & Oxford, I will warn you in advance of this recipe's one and only downside. It needs to simmer for about an hour. You can get away with 45 minutes but really no less. So just be sure when you're standing in that grocery store, it is 4:00 pm and not 5:45 pm.

Feel free to do all your chopping the night before to cut down on the prep time.

The original recipes calls for 6 tablespoons of butter. I have never used that much. I have no problem dropping sticks of butter into my biscuits, pie crusts, and sugar cookies, but I just can't do it to my soup. Your call.

This recipe serves 4, but you'll probably want to double it.

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

  • 4 cups butternut squash, diced into small squares (You can easily get 4 cups from one large squash, probably more. Adding more is perfectly acceptable.)

  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and diced

  • 1 medium onion, diced

  • 1 large celery stalk, diced

  • 6 cups chicken broth

  • Salt

Melt the butter in a soup pot.

Add the squash, carrots, onions, and celery. Stir them all up to help coat the veggies with butter.

Cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, for 8-10 minutes.

Add the broth and season with salt.

Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for one hour.

I stay pretty simple with this soup, but I suppose some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano would make a nice finishing touch. Or better yet, grab a crusty loaf of bread before leaving that grocery store.

Happy fall!

And just in case you're in need of a yummy pile of fall for breakfast, here is the recipe for our favorite pumpkin chocolate chip pancakes!

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lentil chili (sausage optional)

I have made this chili a handful of times and usually end up standing over the pot, shoveling spoonfuls into my mouth while I'm supposed to be doing dishes.

It is everything you hope for in a chili -  filling, flavorful, freezable, (I really didn't intend for all my descriptors to begin with f) and easily adaptable to what I feel like or have on hand.

Most weeknight meals in our home are vegetarian, and this one has definitely claimed a spot in my wintertime rotation.  However, this past week I had some chicken sausage links already opened, so I threw them in.  You can't go wrong by adding sausage, but truthfully, this chili is equally fantastic without.

Either way, make this soon.

  • 4 links precooked chicken sausage, sliced into coins

  • 8 cups vegetable (or chicken) stock, divided

  • 1 medium onion, diced

  • 1 red pepper, diced

  • 2 carrots, diced

  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced

  • 4 tsp. chili powder

  • 1 package of lentils (16 oz. bag)

  • 2 (15 oz.) cans diced tomatoes

  • a good handful of chopped cilantro (Unless you're making this for my sister-in-law who doesn't like cilantro...what?!?!? Crazy.)

Heat a large pot on medium high heat. 

If you are using sausage, drop that in and let it cook for about five minutes, until lightly browned on both sides. 

 
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Add onion, red pepper, carrot, and garlic.  Cook, stirring frequently until the veggies start to stick to the bottom of the pan - about five minutes. 

 
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Add 3 TB of broth and continue cooking the veggies until soft and lightly browned. 

Add chili powder.  Stir constantly for one minute. 

Add lentils, tomatoes, and the rest of the broth.  Bring to a boil. 

Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, on medium low heat for about thirty minutes. 

Uncover and cook for about ten more minutes.

Stir in cilantro and serve.

Go back for seconds.