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

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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.

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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