Tales From The Top: Ain't No Ghetto, This Is My Home

Eating Well on a Budget: Chicken Stir-Fry

I've been looking for a full-time job since March and have been living in relative poverty for a while now. Fortunately, during this financially difficult period, the State of Illinois has deemed me eligible for a Link card, the 21st century equivalent to the food stamps program. Single, with no dependents, I get $200 per month activated on a debit card, with which I can go to just about any grocery store--and even a local farmers market--to buy food. I am grateful every day to the Illinois taxpayers and state legislators who have enabled me to keep food in my refrigerator during these tough economic times. I look forward to the day when I can pay it forward.

I can--and do--eat a lot of ramen noodles and PB&J sandwiches on $200 per month. Although Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn doesn't approve, I also occasionally buy pretzels, ice cream and other nonessential, but good-for-the-spirit, foods. Two things I have absolutely refused to give up are coffee and Hershey's chocolate syrup. (My day is incomplete if it does not start with my homemade iced-mocha lattes.)

Because $200 does not go as far as it used to for groceries, I have to shop carefully and buy "luxury items" such as meat and cheese only when they're on sale. I'm happy to report I've created a few delicious recipes that are inexpensive and easy to prepare. My favorite is the following chicken (or tofu) stir-fry that takes less than 20 minutes from prep to plate!

Phoebe's Most Excellent Chicken Stir-Fry
stir fry_after.jpg
Serves 1, but could easily be doubled to serve 2-3 people

  • 1 boneless, skinless chicken breast (I won't pay more than $1.99/lb--when I find it on sale, I buy as much as I can and freeze it in Ziploc baggies.)
  • Approx. 1/8 yellow onion, thinly sliced longways (I prefer the sweet Vidalia onions, but usually get whatever's on sale and in season.)
  • Approx. 1 cup broccoli, fresh or frozen
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 t minced fresh ginger root (Fresh ginger trumps powdered in a stir-fry recipe every time--plus, it's good for you.)
  • Approx. 1/4 cup Kraft Asian Toasted Sesame Reduced Fat Dressing (I was able to get it at Dominick's on sale for $1.89--a bottle lasts me quite a while.)
  • 1 package ramen noodles (I get the Maruchen Super 6-pack at my local Certified for about $1.19--it's a great staple.)
  • Enough veggie oil to stir-fry veggies and chicken separately
  • Optional: 1/2 cup dry-roasted peanuts (At $3.29 for a 12 oz jar at Dominick's, this is a definite luxury item for me, but they add a great texture and flavor to the meal.)
How to Prepare
1. Prep veggies.

Tips: Rather than chopping the onion, try cutting the onion in half, length-wise (after cutting off both ends and peeling it, of course). And then shave a few thin "wedges" from the onion, from the outside to the core. You wind up with crescent moon-shaped slices, which are prettier than little chunks. After washing it, cut broccoli into bite-sized flowerets. I stir-fry the thinly sliced stems, as well. Because I only have one cutting board, I usually mince the garlic and ginger while the veggies are cooking.

2. Start water in a pot for the ramen noodles, according to package.

Tip: I use more than the 2 cups of water called for, because you're going to drain it all and it allows for evaporation in case the water starts boiling before you're ready to actually start cooking the noodles (which only take 3 minutes).

3. Heat about a teaspoon of oil in wok or frying pan, and then add onions and broccoli. Stir and turn veggies often on a medium-high heat until the onions are almost translucent and the broccoli has turned a deep green (3-5 minutes). Add the ginger and garlic in the last 30 seconds or so and stir in thoroughly, being careful not to allow the herbs to burn. Scrape the cooked veggies into a bowl (I use the same bowl I eat the finished product in to cut down on dishes) and set aside.

4. Cut the chicken breast into approx. 1-inch chunks. Tofu would work, too.

5. If you're going to add peanuts to the recipe, this is when you would brown them lightly for about a minute over medium-high heat, turning constantly. It's not necessary to add oil. Once browned, dump the peanuts in the bowl with the cooked veggies and set aside.

6. Heat approx. 1 tablespoon of oil in the wok or skillet. Add the chicken and stir-fry thoroughly over a medium-high heat (approx. 5 minutes).

Tip: To check chicken for "doneness," split open a couple of chunks with your stir-fry utensil to make sure there is no pink inside. The meat should be white through and through.

7. Add the noodles to the boiling water after you've started the chicken.
Tip: I try to time it so the noodles are ready just before the chicken is done. I'll turn down the heat a little on the chicken so it won't burn, and then drain the noodles. I don't even bother with a colander. I just leave the noodles in the pot. NOTE: I don't use the MSG flavor packet that comes with the noodles in this recipe. Therefore, I have a bunch of them sitting in my food pantry if I ever cook something that calls for chicken broth.

8. Once the chicken is thoroughly cooked, turn down the heat to medium low and add the sesame salad dressing. Mix thoroughly to make sure the chicken is coated on all sides. The sauce will bubble a little and thicken when heated.

9. Finally, add the veggies (and peanuts) to the chicken/sesame dressing mixture and toss lightly to coat the veggies. Cover and simmer over a low heat for a couple of minutes while you transfer the drained noodles to your bowl(s).

10. Scoop a healthy serving of the beautifully stir-fried meat (or tofu) and veggies over the noodles, season with soy sauce or tamari, if desired, and enjoy!

In less than 20 minutes, you will have a delicious, nutritious meal that costs only about $2 per serving and requires dirtying very few dishes.

Veterans Day Reflection

My dad, Leo A. King, served in the military during World War II. He spoke proudly of his experiences in the "Negro" Army and how he earned the respect of his white commanding officers.  After the War he leveraged his veteran status to promote civil rights and demand equal justice in the Jim Crow South--in at least one instance before sit-ins had ever been conceived of. Sadly, I heard the story for the first time at his memorial service almost six years ago.

Leo King_Army portrait.jpg

Leo A. King

He went down to Kansas City, KS, to visit relatives after the War. Two of my cousins were just boys then. My dad took them to the local five-and-dime for some ice cream. The way my cousin told the story, they didn't want to go because they knew better: Blacks were not served at that establishment back then.

But my dad insisted and so they went downtown. He walked the boys into the store and up to the counter and stood there, waiting for somebody to notice them. My cousin said he remembered feeling antsy and extremely uncomfortable. He was about 9 years old at the time.

After being ignored for several minutes, the manager came up to my dad and told him that they didn't serve Negroes. According to my cousin, my father, who was a tall, thin man, stood up even taller, looked the man dead in the eye and said, "I fought for you and for this country and I'll be damned if I'm going to stand here and not be treated with respect. I would like a scoop of ice cream for each of these young men, thank you very much."

My cousin said his jaw about dropped to the floor when the blustery white man complied with my dad's wishes and for the first time in his young life he was served a bowl of ice cream at the local five and dime.

One of my friends noted that my dad served our country in war and in peace. I know for sure he made a difference in the way he lived his life. On this Veterans Day I honor the memory of my father: He was always his own boss.

What's Up with the Weather?

UPDATE:  21:58, 11-08-10

"Sunny days | Sweeping the clouds away"

Seriously, has Chicago magically been transported to the Sesame Street set?! In my entire life I do not remember a fall in Chicago as fabulously sunny and beautiful as this one. According to WGN, October was the sunniest month in Chicago on record--and the report is dated OCTOBER 21!

Not that I'm complaining and I hope the weather stays this sunny and fabulous through the holidays, but as a lifelong Chicagoan it certainly makes me wonder. I keep waiting for the gloomy, gray, damp and rainy weather we are usually subjected to by this time of year to fall upon us in the same way ginkgo trees shed their leaves: womp! All at once.

Instead, we have been waking up to wall-to-wall blue skies and sunshine--day after day after day. I make a point of being grateful and NOT taking it for granted 'cause I know it's a fluke that can end at any moment.

Is It High-Pressure Systems?
The only report I've found so far for October shows that Oct. 1-21 experienced 86 percent sunny weather--and WGN reports it is going to continue! An anomaly, they're calling it.

Jim Angel, PhD, the official climatologist for Illinois, said the the final figures for October sunshine dropped a bit from the Oct. 21 readings but were still considerably sunnier than normal. The official word from the Illinois State Climatologist Office is that October was 78 percent sunny up from its usual 58 percent. "It's like an extra sunny day a week," Angel said.

When asked to explain why we've been having such a sunny, dry fall, Angel said the region is being dominated by high pressure, which is blocking out storm systems. The bigger picture, Angel added, is that these types of weather systems produce warm and dry conditions. 

Or Government Conspiracy?
A gal I met while I was living in Michigan earlier this year will tell you it's the government's doing, that the U.S. government is dumping chemicals into the atmosphere on purpose in order to affect the weather and stave off global warming. This wiki provides an overview of this tinfoil hat theory. A blog I know nothing about, which I located through a Google search on the term "chemtrails Chicago," concurs with the Michigan woman's theory.

Gateway Centre_Rogers Park.jpg

Not a cloud in the sky at the Gateway Centre near Howard Street in Rogers Park. Conspiracy theorists insist we have the U.S. government to 'thank' for the fabulous fall weather we've been experiencing here in Chicago.

I remain skeptical: All "official" reports I have read say there is nothing to substantiate that chemicals are being released into the atmosphere via jet exhaust (i.e., contrails) to control global warming. My online research has found that the chemtrail conspiracy, also referred to as "atmospheric geoengineering," remains in the purview of relatively obscure branches off the mainstream.

Angel said it doesn't really make sense. "If they were going to spray chemicals at 40,000 feet, it would wind up...in Canada," Angel said.

Either Way, Enjoy It While It Lasts
In my tongue-in-cheek opinion, if scientists ARE dumping toxic chemicals into the atmosphere to control the weather and it results in day after day of blue skies and sunshine in November here in Chicago, I say, Go for it! ;-) But realistically speaking, Angel said the short-term forecast looks nice--sunny and warm--but next week should bring us the type of cold, gray, dreary weather Chicagoans are accustomed to in November.

In other words, he said, enjoy it while it lasts.

Busted Myself Stereotyping Today

smashed pumpkin.jpg
Why is it that when I see a broken jack o'lantern in my neighborhood, my first thought is "vandals" and "hoodlums" but when I see a broken pumpkin just north of my neighborhood in suburban Evanston my first thought is "childhood prank"?

Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 book, Blink, may provide some insights into how we think. The People's Institute may help change the way we think. But you can't change what you don't see.

Think about it. 

Rogers Park Tales Historical Tidbit

One of my neighbors told me today this Rogers Park north of Howard Street community was created on practical grounds. Evanston didn't want to have to run its sewer lines under the Calvary Cemetery, so the city ceded this little parcel of land to Chicago in 1915. What used to be called "No-Man's Land," according to the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society became Germania.
Germania map.JPG

The north of Howard Street section of Rogers Park was part of Evanston, IL, until 1915. (Graphic courtesy of the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society. Retrieved Nov. 3, 2010, from http://budurl.com/germaniamap)

I LOVE Rogers Park!

I stumbled across a real estate blog not too long ago on which a condo listing on Hoyne generated a bunch of comments about what a shit hole Rogers Park is. The following is my lightly edited response:

I have lived in Rogers Park and West Ridge for 18 of the past 20 years, including a stint as a condo owner, and I personally wouldn't want to live anywhere else. I love Rogers Park's diversity, convenience, access to great restaurants, entertainment, the lakefront, shopping...

In all my time here, 7 of those years on Pratt near Lakewood, the worst experience I've had is when my road bicycle was stolen out of my storage locker in 1994, or so. My car may have been broken into once, too, but that's life in the city. The same thing happened when I lived in Boys Town-and that's supposed to be a "safe" neighborhood.


Lost Eras is one of many businesses along Howard Street in Rogers Park.

I currently live in what you all would consider the worst of the worst of Rogers Park, that little enclave notoriously known as the Jungle that butts up against the Calvary Cemetery. I don't have a car right now and EVERYTHING is conveniently located within 2 blocks of my apartment building: Red/Purple Line is a block away as well as a bus depot that will take me to just about any part of the city and into Evanston and Skokie, as well. Grocery store, post office, laundromat are all within a block; the lakefront, with a nice little beach, is a 4-block stroll.

I'll admit I've been startled by the sound of gunshots in this neighborhood. And there are definitely druggies and too many young men hanging out on street corners (the unemployment rate among young black men in urban areas such as this is as high as 52 percent). But, for the most part, the people I have met and spoken with in this neighborhood, some of whom have lived here for 20 or 30 years, are no different from you and me: hard-working, law-abiding citizens who just want some peace and to be able to get along in this world.

I'm actually working on starting a writing program for teens in this neighborhood to get them blogging about their experiences growing up around here so that maybe people like you can quit stereotyping and see them for who they really are-smart young people struggling with many of the same issues YOU did at their age, young people who matter and who have something to contribute to society if given the opportunity to explore their interests.

People like you guys who do "drive-bys" of neighborhoods like Rogers Park or form opinions of my 'hood based on the crap you read on city-data.com message boards are missing out on opportunities to live in a vibrant, racially, ethnically and economically diverse community that boasts all the great conveniences of city living without the ginormous price tags. Gentrification be damned, this is a GREAT time to invest in a community that is committed to maintaining its identity as the most diverse neighborhood in Chicago. I love Rogers Park and look forward to the day when I can afford to invest in real estate here again. just sayin'

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