Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas 2009

People in Kansas City hoping for a white Christmas got more than they bargained for this year. We had a blizzard Christmas morning and got something like a foot of snow. It has been many years since we have had so much snow in a single storm. This would have been more fun if Elly hadn’t had to work on Saturday! We still enjoyed it though. Basie especially, shown here with a somewhat icy kong.

One of my absolute favorite things is to watch birds at our feeders on a snowy day, and we were treated to a real display on Christmas — flocks of juncos and goldfinches, a dozen or more cardinals, blue jays, a few white-throated sparrows, lots of house finches, and the usual mix of urban junk birds (house sparrows, starlings, and mourning doves). A crow even showed up in the early morning. This afternoon we added another bird to our backyard list, an American Tree Sparrow, bringing our count to 53.

Of course, we did a lot of cooking on Christmas day, another of our favorite things. We went Indian for Christmas dinner (Elly doing most of the work). I made a plum pudding for dessert (how-to post coming soon). For breakfast Christmas morning I made cranberry scones, following a terrific recipe in the Cooks Illustrated Baking cookbook. Lots of butter and cream make for an outstanding scone. (Not a diet food!)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Haphazard Loiterer

For myself, being in a manner a haphazard loiterer about the world and prone to linger in its pleasant places, here have I been suffering day by day to steal away unheeded, spellbound, for aught I know, in this old enchanted pile. Having always a companionable feeling for my reader, and being prone to live with him on confidential terms, I shall make it a point to communicate to him my reveries and researches during this state of delicious thraldom. If they have the power of imparting to his imagination any of the witching charms of the place, he will not repine at lingering with me for a season in the legendary halls of the Alhambra.

— Washington Irving, The Alhambra

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Alhambra

“I now perceived I had made an invaluable acquaintance in this son of the Alhambra, one who knew all the apocryphal history of the place, and firmly believed in it, and whose memory was stuffed with a kind of knowledge for which I have a lurking fancy, but which is too apt to be considered rubbish by less indulgent philosophers. I determined to cultivate the acquaintance of this learned Theban.”

— Washington Irving, The Alhambra, “Palace of the Alhambra” (p. 35, Heritage Press edition, 1969)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pumpkin Soup

I'll be the first to admit that Pumpkin soup doesn't sound promising. It calls to mind soupy pumpkin pie, which seems disgusting, even for someone who likes desserts. The source of the recipe was also one to inspire skepticism: Ghoulish Goodies: A Frightful Cookbook by Sharon Bowers. Elly brought it home before Halloween. It includes lots of clever ideas for treats like "Swamp Creature Toes" (pretzel sticks dipped in chocolate with sliced almonds painted with green food coloring as the toenails). Honestly, though, in addition to terrifically amusing themed treats (suitable for making with kids) it also contains wonderful recipes, including one for pumpkin soup, which is savory, not sweet. Bowers' first comment about pumpkin soup is the biggest mistake most people make is trying to play up the sweetness of pumpkin. Ah.

Pumpkin Prep

Habitues of The Life Less Hectic may be familiar with my post on pumpkin pie, in which I discourse on the importance of choosing a "pie" pumpkin, NOT a carving pumpkin, for cooking. The same applies for soup. Indeed, for any meal involving pumpkin.

The method for preparing pumpkin for pies is simplicity itself, as described in the pie article. Prepping pumpkin for soup is more labor intensive, as the pumpkin needs to be cubed. Banish thoughts of peeling a pumpkin at the outset! Directions for peeling a pumpkin with a sharp knife are available on the web. I've tried (and failed) to imagine a more likely scenario for slicing off a finger. Instead, dice the pumpkin as you would a cantelope, first cutting it in half lengthwise and scraping out the seeds and pulp (blessedly easy with pie pumpkins as opposed to carving pumpkins). Then cut the halves into wedges, cut those into squares, and then cut off the shell. This takes a bit of time, but the odds of completing the task with all fingers intact are good. So much for cubed pumpkin.

By the way, even a small pie pumpkin yields more than you'll need for this soup (16 oz. cubed). Faced with this problem, I tossed the remaining cubes in a bit of canola oil, and roasted them in a 400 degree oven for around 40 minutes (turning them about four times). Then I pureed the roasted cubes. Somewhat to my surprise, I found the flavor AND texture superior to roasting pumpkin in the shell as in my pie post. Elly's theory is that the additional surface exposed when roasting the cubes develops more flavor and concentrates the pumpkin by lowering the moisture content.

Roasted Vegetable Stock

The only significant deviation I made from Bowers' recipe was to use roasted vegetable stock, instead of chicken stock. You want to make this yourself. It's not hard to do, and the result is far superior to any commercial product. This is true, in fact, even if you want to use chicken stock. Not only will the flavor be fantastic, you'll also eliminate chemical preservatives, which is no small advantage.

I followed Martha Rose Shulman's roasted vegetable stock recipe from her book, The Best Vegetarian Recipes.

  • 1 large onion, coarsely chopped

  • 4 carrots, trimmed and sliced

  • 6 large garlic cloves, peeled

  • 1 large leek, white and light green parts, cleaned and sliced

  • 1 pasnip, peeled and sliced

  • 1/2 pound mushrooms, stems trimmed, whipped clean

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

  • 1 cup dry white wine

  • Bouguet garni made with several parsley and thyme sprigs and one bay leaf

  • 6 whole peppercorns

  • Salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons)

  • Soy sauce to taste (1 to 2 teaspoons)

Toss the veggies with olive oil in a large roasting pan. I also included some kosher salt (NEVER use table salt). In fact, banish it from your house and use only kosher or sea salt. Your food will taste infinitely better, and people will assume you are a "foodie." If anyone actually uses the term, please slap them! Roast them (the veggies, not people who use the term "foodie") in a preheated 400 degree oven, turning about every 10 minutes, for 40 minutes until the vegetables are browned. They'll look like this. Note: these could actually stand a bit more browning.

Transfer the veggies to a soup pot, pour the cup of white wine into the roasting pan (a splash of cognac added to the wine won't go amiss here, or sherry), and scrape up any brown bits, stirring into the wine. This is called "deglazing" the roasting pan, and it is a serious flavor enhancer. Add the wine to the soup pot, along with 8 cups of water. A note on water: several years ago we got a Brita pitcher and filter all our drinking water. We also filter all water we use for cooking. This is inexpensive and quick, and noticeably improves the flavor of our food.

Back in June Elly made up some herb and flower pots, shown in this post, which included flat-leaf (Italian) parsley. If you're afraid of snakes, skip the first part of the post which includes pictures of a large black rat snake I found on the back porch and almost tried to pick up before I realized it was not a "stick"! :-) The parsley didn't do much until about October, when for some reason it took off. I took this picture a few days ago. We haven't had a hard frost yet, so in late November we're still enjoying delicious parsley from our own garden, along with sage, rosemary, thyme, and even tarragon (though that is getting a bit dodgy). The basil is long gone, alas. Standard herbs are truly hardy plants, inexpensive and easy to grow, and a real boon for the kitchen.

Okay, so the bouquet garni. (You may be wondering about that.) Essentially, it is a cheese cloth bag (or just a scrap of cheese cloth tied up with some string) into which you have stuffed various herbs, in this case parsley and thyme from our garden and a bay leaf. We got these garni bags from Prydes in Westport, and they are fun. A clever trick, if you don't have garni bags, is to empty a tea bag and use that instead. (But the garni bags work better!)

Add the bouquet garni, peppercorns, salt and soy sauce (I use 2 teaspoons of each) to the soup pot, bring it to a boil, and then reduce heat, partially cover, and simmer for an hour.

Keep in mind, we haven't gotten to the soup yet. This is only the stock! In case you haven't already guessed, this is what slow food is all about. Frequently, when the subject of slow food comes up, all sorts of exotic locales (like Italy, where the slow food movement got started) or ingredients are mentioned. None of that is essential to slow cooking, however, and people who think it is usually also think cooking is a bore and needs some hype to make it interesting. All of the ingredients called for in this recipe are available in just about any reasonably stocked grocery store. Also, keep in mind that while you can't make this soup in half an hour, much of the time required is cooking time, during which your involvement is little more than an occasional stir and a quick check to ensure an appropriate simmer. And, needless to say, your kitchen and home will be filled with the delicious aroma.

So, once the stock has simmered, it needs to be strained. This can be done with a strainer and spoon (used to mash as much juice as possible from the roasted veggies). If you have a food mill, you can really wring the last drop of liquid from the veggies. We started our compost pile this year, which is where the leftover pulp ended up.

Now for the Soup

  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped

  • 1 celery stalk, chopped

  • 4 garlic cloves, minced

  • 1 pound pumpkin, cubed

  • 1 medium potato, peeled and diced

  • 1 teaspoon dried sage

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

  • 8 cups roasted veggie stock

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat and then add the chopped onion and celery and saute until softened and lightly browned. Deviating from Bowers' recipe, my advice is NOT to add the minced garlic until the onion and celery are done. Add the garlic and saute for only a few moments before adding the stock and other ingredients. Otherwise, the garlic will burn. The fact that recipes often call for sauting garlic along with ingredients like onions and celery is a puzzle to me. The result is always burnt garlic. Why is this standard advice?

Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for 30 minutes. (Or longer if you like.)

Once the cubed pumpkin and diced potato is tender, remove the soup from the burner and puree it a few cups at a time in a blender. The result will be smooth and creamy. I apologize for not having a picture of this process. I used two large pots, the soup pot and an empty pot, one on either side of the blender, and a ladle to transfer the soup into the blender. Do NOT attempt to use a food processor for this! :-)

The finished soup will look something like this.

This is a time-consuming project. Is it worth the trouble? In a word, yes! The first time I made it, I had to insist that Elly (a vegetarian) step away from the soup pot before she consumed an entire bowl in what was intended to be a simple taste. :-) Apart from the olive oil, this soup is fat-free. And yet it is richer and creamier than the Lobster bisque served at the Bravo's restaurant (a frequent lunch venue for myself and close friends Dahl and Erin Metters). I have made the soup for three weeks running. Elly, who NEVER eats the same meal two nights in a row, is happy to have pumpkin soup every night until it is consumed. And honestly, it is not difficult to make. It doesn't require any exotic or expensive ingredients. It is super-healthy and an absolute treat. There's no down side. You will simply never taste any soup from a can than comes within 100 miles of this for flavor.

Bowers suggests serving the soup with French bread croutons, rubbed with garlic and covered with melted cheese like cheddar or parmesian. It's a wonderful combination. But, even better is to serve it with Andrew Whitley's recipe for Cheese Bread from Bread Matters. That's a subject for another post...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Neddiad

Before they left the colonel put his hand on my shoulder and said, "It is impossible for a boy with his wits about him to travel the Santa Fe Trail without discovering something. You're a boy with your wits about him, and you'll probably find a treasure along the way. If you should meet a Navajo shaman named Melvin, you'll be in luck, so keep your eyes open."

from The Neddidad by Daniel Pinkwater (p. 24)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Another Addition to the Backyard Bird List

Well I have obviously fallen short on my 2009 resolution to write at least one blog post a week, having let two months slide by since my last post. Yikes! So this is going to be something of a compilation.

Yesterday afternoon I stepped outside and noticed what I took to be a flock of geese flying overhead at first glance. But they were awfully low and their wings looked odd. It dawned on my they were gulls. At least three dozen, of them, in fact, flying in formation. A quick call to birding guru, Mark McKellar, at the Backyard Bird Center, helped me identify them as Franklin's Gulls. Mark says that Franklin's are the type that fly in formation like geese.

They were gone in an instant, so needless to say, no picture. Here, however, is a picture I took at 6:09 am on September 16 from our backyard showing a conjunction of the moon with Venus in the eastern sky.

This is actually a handheld image. I didn't even use a tripod. These digital point and shoot cameras are amazing. (Mine is a Canon S2 IS.) The trick for something like this is to set the ISO speed at something reasonably fast, 200 or 400 ISO, and then significantly underexpose the image.

Here is a fun picture I took of bees on a flower in our neighbor's yard a few days after the conjunction. We sort of skipped October and zoomed right into November in Kansas City, this fall, with temps quickly following into the 40s during the day. Not too many opportunities for fall flower pictures now!

Here is a picture of Basie and me taken in the last few weeks -- on Elly's birthday camping trip to Pomme de Terre state park. Pomme de Terre has become our favorite state park this year (the Pittsburgh side!), followed closely by Arrow Rock state park.

The sunsets were beautiful during our visit.

Here is Basie, enjoying the sunset in his preferred snoozing orientation...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Paying Attention

"Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings become no more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else. We pay attention to the speedometer, the wristwatch, the cell phone, the list of things to do, all of which feed our illusion that life is manageable. Meanwhile, none of them meets the first criterion for reverence, which is to remind us that we are not gods. If anything, these devices sustain the illusion that we might yet be gods -- if only we could find some way to do more faster."

-- Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

Friday, August 7, 2009

Eddie Delahunt Cafe

I heard about Eddie Delahunt on NPR yesterday morning, a program about local musical performers. Eddie is an Irish singer and musician who operates his own Cafe (shown above) at 45th & State Line, in a nifty antiques area. Samples of Eddie's music can be heard at Or, if you live in Kansas City you can catch Eddie's act live. Among other local venues, he currently performs Friday evenings from 6 to 9 at Mike Kelly's Westsider.

I happened to meet with Lynn Badaracco, my Lee Hecht Harrison outplacement consultant, last week at the Roasterie Cafe in Brookside. Lynn is helping me with my job search -- I volunteered for a separation package from Sprint Nextel this spring. I've been considering whether to blog about searching for a new job. Guess this is my first post to touch on the subject. :-)

One of my goals is to find a job in the KC urban core area, or at least a reasonably short commute from it. The idea occurred to me that it would be fun to meet with people when possible at venues in the urban core area. Places like the Roasterie, which I enjoyed, or Eddie Delahunt's Cafe, which I visited this afternoon. Eddie himself was on the job behind the counter. No unusual thing, I take it. He wrote a friendly autograph on my copy of his Triur CD. I'm looking forward to my next visit when I plan to stay longer and enjoy a beverage and sandwich.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Elly's Idea of a Burger

Elly and I are interested in vegetable gardening, and we've had a few over the years. Some have been more successful than others. This year, our tomatoes have overrun the whole garden (yes we planted too many!). The plants are well over six feet high. It has been cool and wet this summer, however, and tomatoes prefer hot and dry summers. As a result, we keep getting more and more growth, and more and more green tomatoes. Few are ripening.

The solution? Fried green tomatoes, naturally. :-)

Our favorite recipe comes from Deborah Madison. It's simple to prepare, involving only a small amount of corn meal, and pan frying with ghee (a clarified butter used in Indian cooking). The result is spectacular. At least, we think so.

Basie, it turns out, is not a fan of cooking that involves sizzling, smoke, or the exhaust hood on our cooktop. His opinion on the matter emerged quite suddenly. One day, we fired up the indoor grill. An instant later he went sailing over the puppy gate like a gazelle, clearing it by a good 12 inches and heading for a remote region of our home. (He had never previously jumped over it.) He's shown here watching the green tomato proceedings from a safe distance.

Traditional burgers are off the menu for Elly, who is a vegetarian. However, we have discovered Morning Star Chipotle Black Bean Burgers at Costco. They are hands down the tastiest veggie burgers we have tried. So here is Elly's idea of a burger, served with sauteed mushrooms on a bed of lettuce with a side of fried green tomatoes. Quick and easy to prepare, and nothing short of fabu. I had the same thing and loved every bite.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Access to the Divine

"To be a mystic is to have direct access to the divine, an access that requires no middleman or woman. Mysticism is to have direct knowledge through insight and intuition of God or ultimate truth. In this state of overwhelming awe and connection to all things, meaning and purpose are a given. And here's what is truly surprising: the whole 'mystic' thing is actually not as mysterious as it's been cracked up to be.

The Buddha, the 'Awakened One,' said that Buddha nature is in each one of us and that nothing special is required to have it. It's just a matter of allowing it. It is the same for the mystic in each one of us. Though the part of each of us that is capable of a higher consciousness and therefore connection to all things may be dormant, it is always accessible. Search your mind and heart for it, and it is there. And once awakened, the ultimate clarity and meaning result."

from The Little Book on Meaning by Laura Berman Fortgang (pp. 183-4).

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thomas Hart Benton

It was an exciting day last Saturday. I met Thomas Hart Benton, which was quite a feat since he passed away in 1975. No, I wasn't channeling Tom. Local historian Bill Worley portrayed the artist in the studio (a converted garage) at Benton's home which is only a few blocks from our neighborhood. The event was co-sponsored by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the Missouri Humanities Council.

Worley gave a wonderful Benton performance, and the experience was enriched by the tremendous sense of place and being surrounded by the artist's tools, supplies, and other personal effects.

More pictures from the event can be seen in my Benton Picasa album.

As if meeting Thomas Hart Benton was not enough excitement for one day, Saturday evening I had the honor to meet Galileo Galilei. But that is a story for another post...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Outstanding in Its Field

Yes it has been a heck of a long time since my last blog post, but rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated. I thought it would be a good idea to write a post and head off any Jeff Goldblum style Google hoaxes! :-)

I decided to upgrade the OS on my computer, with predictably disastrous results. When I finally got that fixed, everything had to be reloaded, of course, and I couldn't find my Adobe Elements DVD for the longest time. All is well, now. Or at least functional.

This is my 22-inch Dob. Technically not in its own field, but in Ron Abbott's field at his Land of Oz observatory. We had a great night of observing last Saturday. Dave Hudgins and Bently Ousley joined in on the fun. Rumor has it Dave will be appearing in full Galileo regalia at the July ASKC meeting tomorrow night, telescope in hand. Watch this blog for pictures of the action.

Here is a picture of Ron himself on the morning after our observing session.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Snake Redux

We have some soffit and fascia that needs to be replaced on a corner of our front porch roof. It has been needing repair for quite some time, actually. Starlings have taken to nesting inside it. This morning, as Elly was leaving for work, I stepped up on the front porch wall to take a closer look and was startled to see a snake poking its head out of the soffit. I'm not sure it was the same black rat snake we saw on our back porch because its head seemed quite a bit larger than the last one. It must have climbed up the stone pillar on that corner to go in and visit the starlings. Black rat snakes are reputedly excellent climbers, and now we have evidence that such is the case.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Backyard Safari

I got a start yesterday afternoon when I went to turn on our birdbath fountain. I thought to myself, hmmmm, I wonder who put that stick behind here . . . it looks a lot like a snake. Then it dawned on me that it IS A SNAKE!!!! I'm not an expert in matters herpetologic and initially thought our visitor was a bull snake. But, Dan Johnson, a friend from the Kansas City astronomy club I belong to, who sometimes counts snakes in his spare time to assist local herpetology research, told me it is a black rat snake. They are wide spread in Missouri and reach lengths up to 6 feet. Our visitor was a good three feet. Mature adults are mostly black. This one is not full grown and still showing obvious markings. They get darker as they mature. I gently encouraged it to vacate the porch, where upon it took up residence UNDER our porch.

Rat snakes (among others) are useful critters to have about for rodent control and such. It didn't seem particularly aggressive, either. Elly is more pleased about the new resident than I am, oddly enough. Her theory is that the snake has been with us for quite a while, and we've only just now noticed it. Possibly. Anyway, I think urban ecology is a good thing, but am definitely watching my step in the backyard now. Here are a few more pictures.

After those somewhat scary pictures, a nice charming picture of Basie, who decided to ensconce himself in one of our yard chairs Sunday afternoon, seems like a good idea.

We went to one of our favorite garden suppliers earlier in the day, Sunshine Flowers, and got plants for some of our terracotta pots, which we had decided to arrange on our side patio. In particular, we decided to make some parsley pots with both curly and flat leaf parsley, as well as bee balm and cilantro. This is Elly's potting bench, which I built from lumber recovered from a small deck at the back of our yard which we weren't using. We have decided to convert the area into a garden featuring a dogwood tree as a memorial for Samba.

Here is one of the flower pots Elly arranged. I noticed the yellow flower, a Gazania Red Stripe, at the garden center and Elly worked several of them into the arrangements.

We placed four pots on each end of our patio.

After all the gardening, we were both ready for some backyard reading (supervised by Basie, naturally).

One more picture of the Gazania Red Stripe.

Friday, May 15, 2009

All the Time in the World

"Unlike a watch, which marks off how much time has gone and how much remains, the sound of the bells ringing the quarters had seemed to say, 'Stop. Think. This is here. This is now.' In my previous life there had never been enough time: time was always running out. But in the garden, where I was acutely aware of the passage of time -- the changing light as the hours of the day passed by, the shifting pattern of the seasons as the years passed by -- there was paradoxically the feeling of having all the time in the world, of hours and days stretching and expanding into a shimmering pool of now."

-- Katherine Swift, The Moreville Hours: The Story of a Garden.

I read about this book on Cornflower, and Elly gave it to me as a birthday present.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Immense Cosmos

Given the overwhelming vastness and miraculous nature of our universe, a natural tendency is to retreat into our socially constructed existence here on earth -- a thin slice of reality that we can more readily comprehend because we are the primary architects of the cities and factories that now dominate our lives. Yet by ignoring the larger universe in which we are immersed -- by concentrating our attention on the engaging and demanding social reality -- we easily forget that it is the immense cosmos that is our true home. We live almost completely immersed in a socially constructed reality that so fully absorbs our energy and attention that virtually none remains to experience the wonder of our existence. The tragedy of modern industrial societies is the superficiality that they project (and that we accept) as the norm for human affairs. We unconsciously trivialize the human experiment with shallow pursuits of money and social status that mask the magnificence of what it means to be a human being.

-- Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity, pp. 115-16 (revised edition, c1993).

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Backyard Bird List Hits 50

Yesterday afternoon was a wonderful time for bird watching in the Miles backyard. The pine siskins hung out all afternoon, mixing it up with the house finches. I counted 7 siskins at one point. One of our favorite sparrows, White-Crowned, put in an appearance for the first time this spring, a black-capped chickadee came by to visit, the first we've seen in months. And, most fun of all, a white-breasted nuthatch chose to visit our peanut feeder when I was sitting about 8 feet away reading a book. I didn't have the camera so I couldn't get a picture but it is the first white-breasted nuthatch we've seen in our yard. And that brings our backyard bird list to 50. Here is a picture I took yesterday of a white-crowned sparrow.

Our first Peony blossom opened this morning. We have nine large peony bushes in our front yard, a mixture of white, pink, and a reddish-purple. We'll have huge peony bouquets for the next few weeks and our house will be redolent with their fragrance.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Pine Siskins and House Finches

I saw both pine siskins and house finches on one of our feeders this afternoon and took the opportunity to get pictures of them. Since the birds look somewhat a like, it is interesting to see them together. The bird on the right side of the feeder is a female house finch. The other three are pine siskins. You can see that they are smaller and that the house finch's tail is longer. The siskin's markings are more vivid, too, but that is not as easily seen in this image.

The birds on the right in this image are house finches (top female, lower bird male) and the bird on the left side of the feeder is a pine siskin. Here the difference in their beaks is obvious -- the finches have much thicker and more powerful beaks. Also, this is about the best picture I have gotten showing the yellow covert markings on a pine siskin's tail.

It doesn't require a really expensive camera to get interesting and attractive photographs of birds. More important is to understand how to use your camera effectively, get in close to your subjects, and keep your eyes open for good image opportunities. These latter two items are easier to accomplish in your own yard than anywhere else because you needn't dedicate large amounts of time solely to the project and you can control feeder positions and attract birds to good spots for pictures.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Clay-Colored Sparrow

We added another bird to our backyard list (and our life list) yesterday -- a Clay-Colored Sparrow. According to Sibley, these birds often intermingle with chipping sparrows, whom they resemble somewhat. The facial markings easily distinguish them from the latter, at least during the spring when they are breeding. These are migratory birds in our area, nesting in the far northern US and in Canada. Chipping sparrows nest across the US, including in Missouri.

Elly had just returned from her trip to Phoenix, and we were enjoying a glass of wine at our kitchen table when this little bird showed up. I didn't have enough light to get a great picture because it was cloudy and the bird was a bit farther away on our driveway. This was the best shot I managed. The "clay" markings were a beautifully delicate bluish-gray color. This visitor brings our backyard list to 49.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Pine Siskins!

I've been meaning to post about this for a few weeks. Elly and I spotted our first Pine Siskins on Tuesday, April 21, on the new spiral feeder we put up this spring. We have heard of them, but have never actually seen any. A pair showed up while we were sipping coffee and tea at the breakfast table. (I'm the tea drinker.)

We knew immediately what they were. Superficially, they look a little like female house finches. But they are smaller, their markings are much more vivid, their beaks are thinner and more pointy, and their tales are shorter. The yellow markings on the wings and tails are quite subtle -- at least in the ones we have seen, a dozen or more over the past few weeks. They mostly all have fairly obvious supercillium markings, as well.

Mark at Backyard Bird thinks a large group of them wintered over in the Ozarks due to the harsh conditions further north. Now they are heading to their spring breeding locations.

It is fun to identify a bird you haven't seen before, and even more fun to be able to do it in your own backyard. We've also seen many kinglets and brown creepers, lots and lots of chipping sparrows, even flocks of them moving through our neighborhood, and a few Yellow-Rumped warblers (the Myrtle variety). Our backyard bird count now stands at 48. :-)

I took this picture of a saucy white-throated sparrow the same morning the Pine Siskins showed up.

Kindle 2.0

I finally gave into temptation and got a Kindle 2.0. A friend had accidentally ordered two of them, and offered to sell me the spare rather than ship it back to Amazon so I didn't have to order one and wait for it. I've had it for some weeks now. I didn't have a cover for it, initially, but got worried that it might be scratched or damaged and after looking over the various cover options, decided the synthetic covers didn't look functional and went with the standard leather cover. We don't do much leather in our household -- no furniture, coats, etc. But some of our shoes are leather, and some of our dog leads. I would have gone with a synthetic or fabric option if a decent one had been available.

Elly was not enthusiastic about it, initially. I think she was worried I would be ordering books from Amazon every time she turned around. I guess a lot of people have been doing that, judging from Amazon's stock price. But I assured her I am much more interested in older, out-of-print books from places like Project Gutenberg. So far, I have only ordered one book from Amazon -- the Kindle 2.0 Cookbook. It explains how to do lots of things with the Kindle that are not covered in the manual. And that only cost $4.

I've loaded about 50 different books on the reader, lots of John Burroughs, E.F. Benson ghost stories, Willa Cather, Jules Verne, William James, and the like. A friend sent me a paper he had written on mysticism. It was a Word document. Amazon has a nifty service that converts standard document formats, like Word, into the Kindle format. You can even have it done for free if you download the converted document to your computer (instead of having Amazon send it to your Kindle directly) and then use the USB cable to load it on your Kindle. The Word conversion works exceptionally well, converting note numbers to hyperlinks, and doing all sorts of nifty things like that.

I have been extremely pleased with the reader. It is fun to read with, especially in bed, because it is thin and light and the page turning mechanism is super ergonomic. I have heard some users don't like the short pause when changing pages, but I think that is ridiculous. I mean it takes about an instant. Easier than turning the page in a book, honestly. The ability to highlight passages and add notes is wonderful. Also being able to do full text searches. You can go for weeks without recharging if you switch the wireless mode off. The Wireless feature consumes a lot of power if you leave it on, and you have to recharge every few days. Since I download Project Gutenberg books to my computer, and then put them on the Kindle with the USB cable, I rarely ever need wireless connectivity and leave it off most of the time.

My one complaint is that I wish there were a way to organize books in the Kindle so that I could arrange them in groups. Everything just goes into the main list in whatever order it likes. It is easy enough to locate whatever book you want with search and filter features, so the objection is a minor one.

I've been reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and have been loving it. It will be the first book I finish on the Kindle reader. I've meant to read it for years.

Is the Kindle the future of reading? Nope! I'm amused be predictions that print books are going to go the way of the Dodo. Print books that were made over 500 years ago are still readable today. Think about it. Paper book-making is a sustainable technology that does not have to rely on petroleum. Kindle readers are just the opposite. Moreover, electronic files that were made only 20 years ago now can't be read because the technology used for them is obsolete. My prediction is that paper books will still be read when Kindle readers have gone the way of the Dodo.

In the meantime, though, I'm going to enjoy mine.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Cinnamon Roll Disaster

Just in case you were wondering if every culinary effort at the Miles house turns out well, the answer is "No!" Here you see the result of my first experiment with making cinnamon rolls. I thought about taking a picture of what they looked like straight out of the oven but I just wasn't brave enough to do it. I was also a little concerned for the grackles, but have not found any lying dead around the yard. They must have strong constitutions. This one does have an expression that looks something like "I'm going to find who did this and peck his eyes out."

So what happened? Well, surprisingly few cinnamon roll recipes are to be found in baking books. Cooks Illustrated did have one, but it sounded like one of their wacko we're better than everyone else because we're different affairs. I skipped it and went for my mom's old Betty Crocker recipe. I mean BC couldn't possibly let me down. Right? Wrong! The cooking time was WAY too long, and like an idiot I wasn't keeping a close enough eye on what was going on in the oven. And yes, I used an oven thermometer and had the oven pegged at 375 following the directions. The BC icing recipe is also way wrong, basically resulting in confectionary sugar concrete.

What to do? A trip to the library, where I found two books whose cinnamon roll recipes seemed like winners. My second attempt is from Abigail Johnson Dodge's The Weekend Baker, and the result was superb. :-) Abigail knows a thing or two about mixing up icing, as well. Heavy cream makes a much richer icing than milk! I haven't tried recipe number 2, yet, but will definitely give it a go. It's a potato dough approach and calls for Irish Cream liquor in the icing. Anyway, this is one of the Dodge cinnamon rolls. The grackles won't be getting any of these...