Photographs by ChiChi Ubiña

What’s the sweetest part of your day? That’s your “lolli,” according to energetic home chef, Lauren O’Shaughnessy. LOOK enjoyed a fun shoot and interview with Lauren to talk about the founding of her popular food website and Instagram, Lolli of the Day. On those platforms, she captures her weekly family meals and shares her recipes with a wonderful homey touch.

Tell us about growing up: I grew up in Wethersfield, CT, just a little over an hour north of Greenwich, with my mom, dad, and older brother. My mom’s side of the family all lived within a 5 mile radius, so I grew up with cousins who were like siblings, and lots of family dinners. I went to Notre Dame for college, which is where I met my husband. I always felt like I was a Connecticut girl stuck in the Midwest, and when we met and I found out he grew up in Connecticut – it was meant to be!

Tell us about your family meals growing up. I remember growing up with a lot of the same meals during the week, and Sundays were reserved for Italian feasts. We didn’t cook together as a family, but I always hung around the kitchen enjoying the smells, turning the light on in the oven, watching how the water boiled. It was intriguing to me. As I got older, I started to cook more on my own, and opening up my mind to trying new cuisines, as I mainly grew up with meat, potatoes, and Italian food (I’m Irish and Italian…we didn’t venture much past those foods).

I didn’t try sushi until I was 21 during a summer when I was interning in NYC. I remember the first time I tried it with a friend of mine who took me out and essentially forced me to try it. Let’s just say I didn’t regret it. Living in New York was one of those turning points for me with food. With the accessibility to so many different cuisines and flavors, I had to try it all. My husband and I would go EVERYWHERE. Even the tables at our wedding were named after our favorite restaurants.

Tell us about your grandmother – your main inspiration for Lolli: Where do I begin? My grandma was the beautiful matriarch of the family. She passed away almost exactly a year ago, and during her eulogy, my uncle told the story of her “menu.” As a mother of 5 kids, who were all involved with many sports and activities, she would organize her week by creating a menu and tape it to the refrigerator. No one could argue with what was being served. You get what you get and you don’t get upset. When my uncle, the youngest, was still home after the rest of the kids had gone off to college, she continued to make the menu, which then became an open invitation to any friends who would want to join the family for dinner. Friends would come over to the house, go straight to the refrigerator and let my grandma know which day they’d be joining for dinner. She’d always set the table for enough mouths to feed. She had a heart of gold and loved having people around the house. I had never known this story before my uncle told it, and it inspired me. When I cook, it’s like I have her by my side, (I even have her photo right by my stove). I began the weekly menu the Sunday after hearing this story, and have not missed one week except for when we were on vacation. Before the pandemic, I did make it an open invitation to any friends to let us know which night they’d like to join us for dinner, just as my grandma had done. In March, when people couldn’t join us anymore, the menu became a type of therapy, as did the cooking. It was a habit, a ritual of sorts, that kept all of us sane. More than that, I really get so much joy out of cooking, and then watching people eat my food. I love the feedback and testing out different recipes to see what works and what doesn’t. 2022 will hopefully bring many more people around the dinner table.

Your husband must be the happiest man in town! Does he absolutely love this project? He does love the project, although he claims he’s gaining too much weight from it now and needs to work out twice per day! I’m a typical Italian mama. Mangia, mangia!

How and when did you start Lolli? I started Lolli back in September, after the kids went back to school (in person – hallelujah!). Since I kept sharing my weekly menu on my personal Instagram, I started to get a lot of feedback from friends, and then a lot of questions about how to cook certain things and different favorite recipes. And, because I was doing the weekly menu and constantly trying new recipes and tweaking them as I saw fit, I realized I had all of these papers lying around with notes and written down recipes. I needed somewhere for them all to live. In addition, I’m trying to save people time, because I’ve scoured the internet and cookbooks for the recipes I think are the “best” in their category – whether it’s banana bread or chicken soup – and I adapt them as necessary.

When coming up with a name, “Lolli” was the obvious choice. Every night at dinner, we go around the table and share what our “Lolli of the Day” was – it’s the sweetest part of your day, like a Lollipop. That’s what I’m trying to do for everyone – help them in the kitchen so even if the day was horrible, their food was delicious. It can be their Lolli of the Day.

How do you come up with your menu for the week? Honestly, this is the hardest part. I start thinking about it on Saturday afternoon and try to crowdsource ideas from my husband and kids (they typically get a choice each week – although sometimes that means a weekly installment of chicken tenders and boxed rice). I look through different cookbooks and blogs, check out NYTimes Cooking, and I even look back at past weekly menus. I try to break up the week with proteins, but sometimes we end up with chicken, chicken, and more chicken. My family is not big on fish, so you will hardly ever see a fish entree listed. Once I’ve brainstormed different options, I start making the menu and space out the meals based on what activities are going on that week and how much time I’ll have to make dinner. This means some weeks there will be a couple of slow cooker meals, other weeks there will be sheet pan meals, depending on what time of the day I can actually get into the kitchen to prep. Some days I can take an entire day to cook! Those are the days I like best.

Do your kids eat all that yummy food? Of course not! The nights I know that it’s something they’ll scoff at, I try to make sure I have ONE item that they will eat on the plate. I’ve also become really good at deconstructing meals. For example, my daughter won’t eat my Chicken Tinga Tacos, but since they’re made with a rotisserie chicken, I separate a portion of rotisserie chicken for her before mixing the rest with the sauce. One thing I refuse to do is be a short-order cook. I won’t make different things for the kids because I want them to open up their minds to different foods. And if they won’t eat what’s on the plate, there’s almost always a fruit or veggie available for them to enjoy. My daughter is only 4, so she’s a bit of work, but my 7 year old son has become a REALLY good eater. I mean…I’m really impressed.

Tell us about how you get your kids to help in the kitchen. A few years ago, I bought one of those enclosed kitchen stools for my kids to stand in. They are always dragging it over tothe stove (my floors can prove it) or island to help me prep things. I have a kids’ set of kitchen tools, so they have also gotten pretty adept at cutting up fruits. And my daughter really likes to peel the skin off the onions. It means I have to have her start about an hour before I actually need them, but she loves it.

Tell us about your Ina Garten challenge. This goes hand-in-hand with trying to come up with menu items for the week. A friend of mine told me that Ina’s Ultimate Beef Stew from her newest cookbook, Modern Comfort Food, was insane and I needed to try it. Then she suggested I do a little “Julie and Julia” experiment with the cookbook. So…challenge accepted! I have given myself 6 months to complete the whole book of recipes that I plan on cooking EXACTLY as it’s laid out. This is a challenge for me because I don’t measure anything in the kitchen, but Ina’s known for testing, testing, and retesting her recipes, so I have to trust them! There are a couple of caveats, because there are allergies in the family that don’t line up with a few recipes. Otherwise, they will (almost) all be trialed and written about on my blog.

Has Ina responded? Oh no, definitely not on her radar…yet! That’s the ultimate goal, though!

Do you get lots of feedback from your followers? Actually, yes, that’s been the best part of this. A lot of people have been making my recipes or asking for advice on different tricks in the kitchen. I’m not a trained chef, I’m a mom who loves to cook, and I think people appreciate that kind of approachability. I love seeing what people are responding to and what doesn’t resonate. My meatloaf? I couldn’t believe how many people wanted that! I suppose that’s the ultimate comfort food, though, and that’s what everyone is looking for these days. I love to have fun in the kitchen and I hope people see that. I don’t take myself too seriously. There are many trials and tribulations and I make sure to show it all.

What are your favorite cooking shows? I don’t watch cooking shows anymore, but, obviously, Barefoot Contessa is one of them! Ina got me through some of those dark newborn days with my first born.

What are your favorite take-out places in the area? Louie’s, Little Pub, Miku

Where do you get your pizza for pizza night? I make it! It’s the first recipe I set out to master. Beginning the weekly tradition of Pizza Night over a year ago with store bought dough from Whole Foods, to trying out homemade dough with different flours, to now using sourdough. I’ve found that sourdough is the best for it (I know – typical during COVID that I’d make sourdough). I start the dough on Wednesday and let it ferment in the fridge until Friday for flavor development. We don’t do anything special for it. Just cheese and pepperoni, but it’s really about the dough. The first time I heard that crunch when I sliced the pizza straight from the oven, I knew I had done it. My husband even caught me on video doing an epic happy dance that night. It goes to show, you can always get better at something if you put in the work. That said, I’ve been told I need to try Grigg’s!

Favorite family movies? The Iron Giant, Night at the Museum (all three), Little Giants, Paddington 2

This salad is adapted from Once Upon a Chef, and I played around with it to try to find the right flavor to mimic one of my favorite chopped salads that I would get in the city from Barbounia, in Flatiron. It’s super simple and can be adjusted for a crowd. I’ve found it’s a great salad to bring to a party (remember those?), since everything can be prepped ahead of time and you can dress it right before serving.

Marinade
1/4c olive oil
1tbsp ground cumin
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2tbsp salt
1tsp ground pepper

Mediterranean Salad with Grilled Chicken
Serves 6
1-1.5lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 English Cucumbers, seeded and diced
2 pints Grape Tomatoes, halved
2 bell peppers (I prefer yellow and orange for color), diced
1 bunch of scallions, thinly sliced, all parts
8-10 mint leaves, chopped
1/2c feta cheese, crumbled

Dressing
1/2c olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ tbsp ground cumin
2 lemons, juiced
Salt
Pepper

Pound the chicken to 1/4″ thickness between two pieces of parchment paper. Place chicken in a Ziploc bag with all ingredients from marinade and shake the bag to make sure the chicken is coated. Let marinate for at least 2 hours, up to 6.

After chicken is finished marinating, spray grill grates and grill over high heat, 3 minutes per side. Remove from the grill and let rest for 10 minutes. Slice on a diagonal.

In a large bowl, combine cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, scallions, mint, and half of the feta.

In a container you can shake, combine all ingredients for dressing and shake, shake, shake. Pour half of the dressing over the veggies in the bowl and mix well.

Place sliced chicken over the top of the salad, and drizzle remaining dressing. Sprinkle remaining feta over top before serving.

Note: If your grill is covered in snow, you can achieve a similar flavor with a cast iron skillet!