Sunday, January 30, 2011

Apartment Life

Significant changes have occurred since my last blog post. At the end of September I moved from a 3-story, 3400+ square foot house in midtown Kansas City to a 1200 square foot apartment in Kansas City south. I have been troubled for years by what struck me as the unreasonable consumption of two people living in such a large house. It is wasteful not only in terms of our planet's ecology and taking far more than one's fair share of natural resources, but also at the personal level in the amount of energy, effort, and money required to support it.

Even 1200 feet seems sumptuous for one person, especially compared with the tiny 300 and 400 square foot apartments often featured on one of my favorite websites, Apartment Therapy. But Kansas City isn't New York, and I fell in love with my new apartment the moment I entered it. I had imagined it would take weeks and weeks to find something I liked, but in reality this was the third apartment I looked at. My search lasted less than one week. The one bedroom apartments I saw seemed cramped and the thought of finally having a dedicated study and craft room (i.e. the second bedroom) was enticing.

My top criteria for an apartment was a quiet location with a park-like or wooded view. The balcony of my new home looks out on woods, and it is as quiet as one might desire. As much as I love midtown Kansas City, the noise, and especially sirens, is nearly constant. I quickly set up a bird feeding station on the balcony, and have been rewarded with a delightful mix of birds, some which I rarely or never saw in midtown. Daily visitors include white breasted nuthatches and tufted titmice, neither of which I ever saw in my previous yard, along with black-capped chickadees, Carolina wrens, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers (the picture above), dark-eyed juncos, mourning doves, cardinals, blue jays, and the inevitable house sparrows. I have far few of this nuisance bird than previously, however, and have yet to see either grackles or starlings on the balcony.

The apartment utility bills are far lower than what they were at the house, needless to say, but I have enjoyed a number of additional pleasant surprises. A memorable moment came about when I entered the apartment on my first visit and noticed a hall closet by the front door. What a concept! :-) A convenient place to hang coats. Something apparently not conceived of 100 years ago when houses in our midtown neighborhood were built. I think the apartment manager must have been wondering why I spent so much time looking over the closet with a pleased smile on my face. I have also found the kitchen, though much smaller than my previous kitchen, is far more comfortable and convenient to cook in (at least for one person). The range, refrigerator, kitchen sink, dish washer, and food preparation counter are laid out so compactly one only has to turn around to reach any necessary item.

If one is truly concerned about conserving natural resources, it is hard to imagine any single step that can be more effective in reducing consumption than choosing an apartment over a house. Stewart Brand has much to say on the energy efficiency of apartment life (and the urban environment in general) in his book, Whole Earth Discipline, which concerns itself with pragmatic solutions to the global warming crisis. Moreover, I chose an apartment only minutes from my work location, which has cut my work time commute by something like 75%.

Do I feel I have sacrificed anything by moving to an apartment, or compromised my lifestyle? No. Quite the contrary. I had some concerns when I first moved, but have since come to understand that everything which is truly important to me can be managed one way or another from my new home. And shedding the burden of maintaining an overly large house has been one of the most liberating experiences of my life.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Monarch Mania

I visited the Anita B Gorman Discovery Center today to attend the Monarch Mania event, devoted to the butterfly of that name. The event featured stations positioned around the center grounds with activities for visitors of all ages. The life cycle of the Monarch butterfly was covered in its different phases. A banding project was also being carried out, with small stickers being attached under the wing of each butterfly to establish their migratory route. Visitors could also catch butterflies and other insects with nets for closer inspection at one of the stations. Captured insects were subsequently released unharmed.

A highlight of the event for me was meeting Betsy Betros, author of a terrific book about butterflies — A Photographic Field Guide to the Butterflies in the Kansas City Region (A Local Color Nature Series book). Betsy worked on the book for four years, did most of the photography herself, and even designed and prepared the layout and all the text of the 407 page guide. Wow!

Betsy helped me identify the two skippers shown in the image of an Ironweed plant (Vernonia baldwinii I took at the Heart of America Star Party on September 4. The one on the right is most likely a Sachem (Atalopedes compestris) female and the one on the left is a Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius). Betsy also told me about the Idalia Society, a Kansas City butterfly club. Needless to say, I left with a copy of Betsy’s book under my arm. (And a few other books, too.)

Here is a link to my Picasa album from the HOASP.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Here is a picture I took at Pomme de Terre state park of what turns out to be a type of damselfly, a Powdered Dancer ( Argia Moesta). These were all over the rocky areas at our campsite. I thought they were dragonflies to begin with, knowing next to nothing about them. Both dragonflies and damselflies belong to the order of Odonata, which has inhabited the Earth for something over 250 million years.

I was able to identify the insect using the Stokes Beginner's Guide to Dragonflies and Damselflies, quite a nice guidebook and one I plan to add to our nature library. Donna Brunet, an expert macro photographer here in Missouri who specializes in insects, kindly responded to an email query confirming the identification.

Unlike dragonflies, damselflies generally hold their wings together when perched and their fore and back wings are similar in shape and size. In addition, their eyes are generally spaced farther apart than the diameter of each eye. This picture is of a male. The chalky white coloration on the male's thorax is distinctive.

Here is a picture of a dragonfly I found while walking Basie in our neighborhood recently. It had been snagged by a seriously scary looking spider, who wasn't letting go. I carried the pair home with me and took lots of pictures. I haven't identified either insect yet.

The eyes are obviously larger and much closer together. Here is a picture of the spider.

And a closeup of the spider’s head. (Lots of eyes!)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Home-Made Pizza

Elly and I have fooled around with home-made pizza off and on over the years and have recently come up with an approach we feel is close to perfect. The result is tastier (not to mention healthier!) than what is available at most restaurants and takes surprisingly little time to accomplish.

Making the Dough

The dough recipe comes from Baking Illustrated, a book from the editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, and my most frequently referred to baking book. We use a variation of the recipe on page 154, reducing the yeast to 1/2 teaspoon and letting the dough rise all day. Many bread recipes call for a quantity of yeast designed to complete the rise in an hour or two. Reducing the yeast causes the rise to take much longer. As a consequence, the dough develops much more flavor.

4 cups (22 ounces) of bread flour

Use Better for Bread flour, not All Purpose flour, for pizza dough. The result will be a crispier crust with a nice, chewy interior. Also, if you do much baking, I recommend getting an Oxo digital scale. These cost about $32 and are well worth the price. Flour is highly compressible. Measuring by volume, rather than weight, requires careful technique for consistent results. Measuring flour with a digital scale is quick and fool-proof.

Mix the following two ingredients into the flour with a wooden spoon, a Danish dough whisk, or with the mixing paddle attached on a standing mixer.

1&1/2 teaspoons salt (Kosher or Sea Salt, never table salt!)
1/2 teaspoon of Bread Machine or Instant yeast

Danish dough whisks cost about $9 and are designed for mixing doughs of various types. Bread machine or instant yeast is similar to regular yeast except it doesn’t need to be dissolved or proofed prior to mixing with dry ingredients. Oddly enough, many recipes, including the Cook’s Illustrated recipe referred to here,recommend using bread machine / instant yeast and then call for proofing the yeast before mixing it into the flour. It’s a total waste of time and completely unnecessary.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1&3/4 cups of warm water

We have a Brita pitcher and use filtered water for all of our cooking. The water should be warm to the touch, but not too hot. About 100 degrees is good. I heat the water in our microwave for one minute to get the right temperature. (It’s cold coming out of our refrigerator.) Making the water too hot (over, say 120 degrees) can kill the yeast, though this risk is considerably diminished by mixing the yeast into the flour dry. The flour acts as a buffer, reducing the shock of pouring yeast directly into hot water. Still, keep the temp about 100 degrees.

Mix the olive oil into the water, then pour the liquid into the mixing bowl with the dry ingredients and mix to a wet, shaggy dough.

It is not necessary to knead the dough. Books have been written on the subject, including Suzanne Dunaway’s delightful No Need to Knead, which offers not only delicious recipes but stories and watercolor illustrations by the author. It is out-of-print now, but an absolute gem. Not to be passed up if you come across a copy. Anyway, just mix until all the flour has been incorporated, spray the top with cooking spray, cover with plastic wrap, and leave the bowl on your kitchen counter for the day. You can do this Friday morning for pizza Friday night.

That said, I’m in the habit of mixing the dough in our standing mixer, swapping out the mixing paddle for a dough hook once the ingredients are combined, and then kneading at the lowest speed setting for five minutes. My theory is that it can’t hurt, and why not use a tool we already own? If you don’t own a standing mixer, don’t worry about it and don’t mess with kneading the dough.

Pizza Stone and Peel

Tools you definitely do need for home-made pizza are a good baking stone and a pizza paddle. Old Stone Oven baking stones are the best. They cost about $50. We have an Epicurean pizza peel, made from some sort of composite material with a comfortable rubber handle. It is far better than any wooden pizza peel we have used. It cost about $40.

Preheating the Stone

Put the stone on a middle rack in your oven and heat it up for at least an hour before baking your pizza. Set your oven at the highest possible temperature, which will be something like 500 or 550 degrees. Our temp dial only goes up to 500, but I turn it up above the 500 mark, stopping just below the Oven Clean setting. This is important. You want that stone hot. The biggest difference between a home oven and a commercial pizza oven is the heat level (commercial pizza ovens run at 700-800 degrees and have a stone baking surface). Using a pizza stone properly will get you nearly the same result.

Shaping the Pizza

This dough recipe makes three goodly-sized pizzas. Sprinkle some flour on a clear area of your kitchen counter, and plunk the dough down on it. You’ll have to scrape the dough out of the bowl. Use enough flour to keep the dough from sticking. Put flour on your hands and shape the dough into a thick roll. Cut it into three even pieces and shape into balls. If you’re only making one pizza, wrap the remaining two balls in plastic wrap, but each one inside a ZipLock freezer bag (1-quart is a good size bag), and freeze them.

The dough will hold perfectly for several months this way. When you want to make a pizza, remove the frozen dough from the bag and wrap, spray a mixing bowl with cooking spray, drop the dough in, spray a little more on top, cover the bowl with the plastic wrap, and let it thaw. If you do this in the morning, just leave the bowl in your refrigerator. Take it out when you get home from work and let it warm up for an hour before shaping.

Okay, this is important. DO NOT use a rolling pin to roll out your pizza dough! A rolling pin will squash all the lovely little gas pockets created by the yeast out of the dough, leaving a flat, lackluster crust that won’t be worth a darn. Instead, spread the ball into a six to eight-inch disk gently using your palms, and then, with your fingers, coax it into a nice 14-inch shape. Use flour as necessary to keep it from sticking and flip the disk over so the same side isn’t always facing up. The object here is a thickness of around 1/4 inch. Some areas will be a little thicker and thinner. Be careful about making the crust too thin, which can cause it to burn.

You would think that throwing dough on a blistering hot stone would cause it to burn immediately. However, the moisture in the dough prevents that from happening. Instead, you get a lovely crisp crust with a chewy crumb (the interior). If the crust is too thin, however, the moisture cooks off, and once dry, the area will burn.

Don’t worry about making a perfectly rough crust. It is more important to have a consistent thickness. Let the crust be square or oblong or shaped like an amoeba, just as long as it fits on the pizza paddle.

Forget about Cornmeal!

Most recipes will tell you to use corn meal to keep the pizza from sticking to the paddle. The idea is you spread cornmeal on the pizza paddle, put the dough on top, cover it with the ingredients, and slide the whole thing off the peel onto the stone. This works reasonably well as long as you have used enough corn meal and are competent with the peel, but cornmeal is messy, and your crust will likely be flat and undercooked.

The trick is to forget the cornmeal and pre-bake the crust (on a truly hot pizza stone) before adding any toppings. If you use enough flour to keep the dough from sticking when you shape it, it should slide off the peel with ease as long as you haven't put any ingredients on it. Just fold the shaped dough in half, and then in half again, put it on your peel, and unfold it. Prick it all over with a fork to reduce air pockets when it bakes. Give it a gentle shake to make sure it slides easily, and then slide it onto the hot pizza stone and bake four minutes.

It will look something like this. There will be some bubbles. That’s fine. It’s rustic. It’s authentic. Pre-baking like this causes a nice “oven-spring” when the crust expands rapidly before setting. It creates a wonderful texture that never occurs when toppings are added first.

Pre-baked crust, top and bottom views.

Slide your pizza peel under the pre-baked crust and take it out of the oven to add the toppings. The crust won’t stick at all now, regardless of how many toppings or how much cheese (Elly-Ann!!) you add.

Quick Pizza Sauce

The following recipe makes a delicious sauce in only a few minutes. We started with a pizza sauce recipe from the Cook’s Illustrated Baking book mentioned above and then got real with the seasonings.

1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes in puree.

We have come to prefer Hunts canned tomato products to all others.

2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, pressed through a garlic press

1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon sugar
salt, black pepper, and hot pepper flakes to taste.

Heat the oil in a heavy sauce pan for a few minutes, then add the garlic and cook for 30-45 seconds. The garlic should sizzle slightly when you add it to the pan. Don’t let the garlic brown or burn. Add the crushed tomatoes in puree and stir to incorporate. Stir in the basil, sugar, salt, pepper, and hot pepper flakes. Cook on medium low heat 10 minutes or so to cook off some of the moisture at a gentle simmer. Don’t let the sauce boil.

Final Assembly

Probably a little too much sauce here. :-)

Most recipes will warn you not to put too many ingredients on your pizza. The thing is, if you pre-bake the crust, you can load on as many as you like.

That goes for cheese too, of course.

Canine supervision helps.

The pizza will bake in about six to eight minutes. Faster than you might think. Keep a watchful eye on it, and don’t let it get too brown. After removing your pizza from the oven, let it cool on a wire rack for a few minutes — maybe five — before cutting it. And don’t cut it on your pizza peel! :-)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

First Day of Spring

On our first day of Spring, March 20, 2010, we had a blizzard in Kansas City. Or, at least a heck of a lot of snow. It snowed all day. We had maybe 8 inches altogether.

Snowy weather brings many feathered visitors to our backyard, and yesterday was no exception. In fact, we added two new species to our backyard bird list (included on the left side of The Life Less Hectic), bringing our total to 55. The additions are Song Sparrows and Fox Sparrows. Here is a picture of the Song sparrow, which spent most of the afternoon digging for seeds under the snow.

We attract a good many birds, by far the greatest variety of species, by scattering seed on the ground. Many interesting species, including most of our native sparrows, rarely ever visit feeders. They prefer to feed from the ground close to cover like shrubs and bushes, wooden fences, and trees. Here is another picture of the Song sparrow.

And here is a picture of the Fox sparrow, which showed up later in the afternoon. Both birds stayed long enough for Elly to see them when she got home from work around 6:00 pm.

An American Tree sparrow also put in a brief appearance. We first spotted these in our backyard on December 27, 2009, and have only seen them once or twice.

We have had male red-winged black birds for a few weeks now, but hadn’t seen any females until a group of five or six showed up yesterday. Juncos are still plentiful, and will remain in the area into April, when they migrate to northern breeding grounds. We have had throngs of goldfinches, two and three dozen at a time. Late yesterday a group of 6 or more house finches arrived to share perches on our spiral finch feeder, easily the most effective feeder we have found for smaller birds.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Reading Arrangements

It is not my intention to catch up on six weeks of blog posts in a few days (counting only from the beginning of this year and ignoring all the weekly posts not written in 2009). However, I find myself in a blogging mood and decided on a second foray into less hectic living.

Elly and I have lived in our home in midtown Kansas City for over 21 years. Our choice of a house in a comfortable and friendly midtown neighborhood, and our decision to stay put, has contributed significantly to our happiness and to the peaceful quality of our lives. Americans are said to relocate, on average, every seven years. This claim is consistent with what we have observed in our own neighborhood. Many houses on our block have changed hands three or more times since we moved in. The habit of moving so frequently is undeniably connected with the hectic pace of life experienced by so many, and a subject worthy of its own post. Not this one, however. :-)

Over the years we have put considerable effort into renovating our home, doing much of the work ourselves. And we still have quite a bit to do. We’ve taken our time, probably more time than many people would want to take. One benefit of the slow approach, however, is we have managed to avoid major blunders in the form of design changes not consistent with the character of our house, which was built at the turn of the 20th century. One sees such mistakes all too frequently. Bedrooms, for example, in contemporary homes, are much larger than bedrooms in homes built over 100 years ago. A common remodeling practice is to combine several rooms in an older home into a single bedroom. We had planned such a change ourselves, initially. But as the years passed, we came to appreciate the economy and scale of the bedrooms originally designed for our home. When we finally started remodeling the bedrooms, the idea of knocking down walls to combine them was not given a second thought.

The home we chose all those years ago reflected what we both value and wanted for our lives, but to a surprising extent our home has also shaped our lives and our ideas. The destination of this circuitous ramble is where I am presently seated — my reading chair in our living room.

I could not say precisely when the living room became my favorite place in our home, but it has. It is a sanctuary of repose, relaxation, and reflection. And for reading.

The bookcase and fireplace came first. Our fireplace surely looks original. It isn’t. The previous owners tore out the original fireplace, so we had to replace it. We visited other houses in our neighborhood to see what their fireplaces looked like before rebuilding ours. None were wood-burning. All the original fireplaces in the homes we visited had natural gas heaters. We found the mantelpiece at an antique store in the area. It undoubtedly came from a home built around the same time as ours.

Once the room was finished and furnished, Elly established the sofa as her favorite location (closer to the heating vent), and I chose the corner chair near one of the bookcases. The habit of keeping a selection of currently favored books on the shelves by my chair developed over time. It wasn’t until the last few years that I got serious about a decent reading light. My first choice, a floor-standing Ott light didn’t work out. The light was too cool (it was daylight balanced, which looks very blue indoors) and had a long arm that proved awkward in my reading corner. I replaced that with a rickety floor lamp uncovered by a rummage through our attic, a survivor from our apartment days and not a favorite of Elly’s. Admittedly, one had to be careful when turning it on to avoid knocking off the shade, which at its best was obviously off kilter.

One Saturday in January we visited an area furniture store, Revival Home Furnishings, and found a nice lamp for the living room table. It wasn't truly adequate as a reading light on its own, so I added a floor standing swing-arm lamp from Lowes. Lowes also had replacement shades, one of which perfectly matched the shade on the new table lamp and brought the combination together nicely. The result meets my requirement for bright, comfortable reading light and Elly’s requirement for attractive home decor.

So I have a favorite chair where I like to read. What’s the big deal? First, I spend more time reading and I enjoy it more. (I enjoy the occasional nap, too. A nice thing about books is they wait patiently and don’t go on without you.) The satisfaction from the arrangement, honestly, far exceeds the effort that went into establishing it. We visited some neighbors years ago, and I noticed that Bob (a local history buff) had his own favorite chair with reading light and bookcase in the living room. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me. My perspective has changed considerably since then. It is a big deal. Setting up a spot where you can enjoy a relaxing pastime does wonders for your peace of mind and helps you slow down and enjoy your life instead of rushing through it. And yes, the neighbors we met years ago still live in the same house. Bob may well be sitting in his chair, reading, as I write this post...

Sailor 1911 Fountain Pen

Okay, I haven’t gotten off to a quick start on blogging in 2010. In fact, this is my first post of the year. I have meant to post many times over the past month and a half and simply have not taken the time to do it.

Fountain pens were first mentioned on The Life Less Hectic in a blog post almost one year ago — a post which announced my intention to write a series of posts about slowing down. A series that so far has included two posts, written one week apart, and then nothing since.

While I haven't kept up with my blog this past year, I have written regularly in my personal journal, using the Lamy fountain pen mentioned in my post last February. As I said then, I was surprised by how enjoyable it is to write with a fountain pen and in the year intervening the practice has become a daily habit with me. I decided to splurge on a quality pen and chose a Sailor 1911 with a fine nib. Sailor pen nibs are among the best available, and their fountain pens are reasonably-priced considering the quality, especially when compared with Monte Blanc pens.

Naturally, I purchased mine from our local purveyor of fine writing instruments, The Pen Place. It is beautifully crafted and pure pleasure to write with. It provides an effortless, consistent line with the lightest imaginable touch. When I first became interested in fountain pens, I read that people suffering from arthritis frequently turn to them. Fortunately, I am not afflicted with the condition (at least so far), but I was puzzled about why writing with a fountain pen would help. The reason is that they require practically no force to write with. Using an ordinary ball-point pen requires a surprising amount of force. Often in the past I found my hand cramping up from the death’s grip hold I had on my pen. A small amount of practice with a fountain pen eliminates the problem entirely.

Here is one more picture: a closeup of the nib.