Thursday, May 4, 2017

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.

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.

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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

getting her number

Photo courtesy of Coffee + Crumbs

The three of us walked through the gate as I flashed our shiny new family membership card at the teenage boy behind the desk. My daughter was decked out in her swim gear, and my son sat in the stroller, content, a toy car clutched in each chubby hand.

I was ready for this.

I'd decided on cut-off jean shorts, a navy blue tank, flip flops, and pony tail, a casual but clean ensemble that said I was easy-going but actually did laundry every once in awhile. My mom bag hung over my shoulder bursting with towels, Goldfish crackers, and three baby dolls my daughter insisted join her at the pool. I eased over to the picnic tables, the scent of sunscreen and chlorine heavy in the air. My eyes darted back and forth behind sunglasses, scoping out the field.

This was it - the first day of swim lessons in our new town - the ultimate pick up scene. This place was crawling with moms, and I was on the prowl.

It was pretty new territory for me. In our previous town, all my girlfriends and I started having babies at the same time. My friends became my mom friends; no mom dating required. This worked for me. I was never very good at the witty banter and thoughtful questioning that first dates require. Today had to be different; I brought my A game.

I unloaded at an empty table and attended to my children, careful to present myself as available but not overly desperate. I knelt down to give my daughter the obligatory pep talk about obeying her teacher and being a kind friend. My speech faded off as I noticed a mom at the next table smothering her child in Banana Boat. We exchanged a quick glance and brief smile before our moment was cut short by a whistle and a lady with a clipboard. 

I walked my daughter over to the pool fence and casually hung around to check out the kids (read: moms) in her class. It was a small class, only five children, and one was dropped off by her dad. Useless.

I sat on a bench and began gauging the compatibility potential of each mom. Did she look friendly? Did she look funny? Was she too put together? Too frantic? Was she a high-strung mom or an I-don't-put-sunscreen-on-my-kids mom? Did she have other children? Did it look like she already had enough friends? Was she out of my league, or did I stand a fair chance?

First impression: everyone seemed taken. Moms were already paired up or huddled in small groups chatting about swim meets and The Bachelorette. Should I move closer? Maybe I looked unapproachable or uninterested sitting on this bench alone. I was just about to walk a lap with my son when I spotted her.

To finish reading about my feeble attempt at mom dating, visit Coffee + Crumbs. And while you're there, stick around. Coffee + Crumbs is the real deal when it comes to all things motherhood.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

my lame to-do list

Stephen came home to crabby children, a messy house, and scrambled eggs for dinner, again.

I felt the need to defend myself, or more accurately, I felt the need to console myself and feel accomplished. I opened my planner onto the kitchen counter as Stephen tackled the dishes.

"I am going to name for you all the things I got done today. You won't be interested in most of these, and I recognize this isn't for you - it's for me. But when I'm done reading my list, I'll need you to be proud of me. Maybe even clap."

Stephen's a good sport about ridiculous requests, so in an urgent yet mocking fashion, he turned off the water, and leaned across the counter to humor me with his undivided attention.

I proceeded to read the following list:

Fold laundry
Deposit check
Return stuff to Target
Call Verizon (I deserve a medal for this one!)
Order the canvas print
Empty the dishwasher
Make eye doctor appointment
Cut the kids' nails

What a sorry looking list.

It seemed foolish to rattle off a list that only reinforced my lame life, but my unshowered body and shriveled up mind needed to feel effective. By the looks of crabby child #1, tantrum-throwing child #2, and this "well played in" house, I had little meat to show for my day.

I desperately wanted to think back on my day and feel a sense of pride, but instead, my day was unimpressive and filled with tasks a trained monkey could do.

But Stephen clapped anyway.


For twelve years, I walked into school and knew a to-do list would be waiting on my desk. Sometimes it was a long one on a yellow legal pad and organized into categories like "To Copy," "Phone Calls," "Must Do Today,", and "Must Do By Friday." Other times it was a scattering of items jotted down on neon post-it notes or a sliver of white space in the corner of my plan book.

It was a never-ending list, and for every item scratched off, another two were added in its place. Nevertheless, each day was marked by tangible accomplishments - phone calls made, emails sent, lesson plans written, teachers observed, agendas drafted, meetings conducted, problems solved, presentations completed, papers graded, resources gathered. Boom.

I got stuff done. Impressive stuff.  Important stuff.

Months later, I am still adjusting to this stay-at-home-mom gig, and my list looks different, less satisfying. That rewarding feeling of an impressive, productive day is slipping away.


I imagine I am not alone in my love-hate relationship with these lists. In a social setting, I complain, burdened by a to-do list that haunts my sleep, but secretly, I love that list. I love the sound a Paper Mate Flair pen makes as it crosses off a completed item, and I know I'm not the only one who adds already completed tasks to my list just to feel the rush of checking it off.

I spent three years juggling motherhood with a career and would have been grateful to complete a list like the one above in a week. I know the battle of getting nothing done, forcing myself to surrender the to-do list and play Candyland or cars instead. But these past few months, time has been on my side. With one in preschool, another obsessed with his train table, and afternoon naps still going strong (knock on wood), my Paper Mate Flair pen can swoosh through that to-do list.

Why isn't that enough? Productivity ought to be satisfying.

My day is filled with doing, but what I'm looking for are a few items to activate the 80% of my brain that is turning to mush. Dishwashers? Phone calls? Errands? Ugh. I can practically hear my brain jingling around up there.

I used to get stuff done. Impressive stuff. Important stuff.  

Don't say it. I already know.

It matters. That lame to-do list matters. 


I decided to stay at home with my children for many reasons, the most pressing being Stephen and I weren't content with our quality of life. Yes, we had more breathing room in the budget with two incomes, but no breathing room with our time. Weekends were spent catching up on the bare bones of survival - laundry, grocery shopping, running a Clorox wipe over the bathroom sink. And when we ignored those responsibilities and opted for a family day, we paid the price of falling even further behind. We'd blink, and it was Monday morning, back to the grind. Weeknights were exhausting, a mad rush to stay afloat until the kids were in bed, and then Netflix. So much Netflix. Who had energy for anything else?

So we made a change. I traded that never-ending, seemingly impressive to-do list for a lame one, filled with mundane, brain-mushing tasks. But it has made all the difference. 

It means we can breathe at night. We can pop popcorn and watch a movie with the kids without folding laundry and writing a grocery list at the same time. We can both put the kids to bed rather than one of us heading out to run errands after dark.

It means we can stay in our pjs on Saturday until whenever we want. We can go for a bike ride or spontaneously invite friends for dinner without feeling suffocated by the phone calls we didn't make and the chores we ignored. 

It means I can support Stephen in a way I haven't had time to before. I get to make his day a little bit easier, and hopefully a little bit better by relieving him of the trivial but necessary tasks of life, freeing him up to pour into a job he loves and a family he loves. 


I am quite certain that tomorrow I will be cleaning up spilled milk for the umpteenth time while my brain wiggles and jiggles. I will mumble words unsuitable for my grandmother's ears rather than remembering what my lame daily accomplishments really mean for our family. That's the funny thing about truth - we know it, we speak it, we write it, but it doesn't always play out in our hearts and actions. 

Some days I ache for impressive - for pencil skirts, high heels, meetings, and presentations. I want to learn something and be challenged by new information. I want to solve a problem and organize an event. 

Instead, I make pancakes, sit on hold with Verizon, and entertain a toddler in the post office line. I make animal noises, talk about rainbows, and constantly answer the question "Can I have a treat?". I organize toys, manage schedules, and buckle children into car seats a dozen times a day. I take Charlotte to preschool and perfect Andrew's forward roll during parent/child gymnastics class. I sing songs at storytime and prepare the guest bedroom for upcoming visitors. I fold, iron, tickle, paint, read, hug, cook, call, build, drive, laugh, wash, teach, play, sing, snuggle, and kiss chubby cheeks. 

I get stuff done. Nothing impressive, but everything important.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

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.