Summer's here, and so are its many pleasures. It's time to head to the beach, barbecue with friends, chase fireflies and enjoy the freshest local produce. Start your sunny season on the right foot with these "Good Things."
A better stake: After pruning trees and shrubs in the yard, save the trimmed branches to support returning perennials. They'll be free and plentiful, not to mention more natural looking than metal or plastic spikes. Look for branches with lots of little twigs, and stake three to five of them around each plant. As the plant grows, its foliage will gradually wind around the network of twigs.
A tough nut to crack: Make this the summer of conquering the coconut. Working on a slip-resistant mat, use the back edge of a heavy chef's knife or cleaver to tap all along the equator of the coconut. When it cracks, pry it open a bit, and drain the coconut milk into a bowl. Continue to tap until the coconut splits open. Separate the flesh from the shell with a sharp paring knife.
Flash freeze: Here's a great way to chill beverages in time for an impromptu backyard barbecue. Place wine or other bottled beverages in a bucket. Add a layer of ice, followed by a layer of salt (coarse or table), and repeat until you almost reach the top. Fill the bucket with cold water to just below the ice line. The water in the ice bucket will be colder than normal, chilling the libations in less than 10 minutes.
Burger basics: One of the secrets to perfectly grilled hamburgers is making each patty symmetrical.
Using a measuring cup, shape meat into 1-inch-thick rounds. Tap back of cup to remove; then indent patties with your hand to prevent doming (which causes condiments to slip).
Made in the shade: Table-and-umbrella tandems are often found on patios and decks, where they provide sheltered seating for large groups. Why not adapt the concept to more intimate settings? You will need a small wooden table, plus an outdoor umbrella that's proportional to the table. Using a drill with a hole-saw attachment that's slightly larger than the diameter of the umbrella pole, make a hole in the center of the table. Paint the table (as well as matching all-weather chairs, if you like) and insert the pole through the hole and into the stand.
Perfectly centered: Turn that umbrella pole in the middle of your patio table to your advantage. To create a centerpiece, use a Bundt pan, gelatin mold or any pan with a hole in the middle. The pole will slip through, leaving a ring of blooms all around it. (Be sure the pole fits through the hole.) And unless your style runs to industrial modern, you may want to spray-paint the outside of the pan with an exterior high-gloss enamel. Use floral foam to keep the arrangement in place.
Weight on tables: These tassels will keep the wind from blowing your tablecloth into the neighbor's pool. Wrap strands of colored raffia lengthwise around a 3 1/2-inch-by-2-inch piece of cardboard several times. Thread a 6-inch piece through the top; knot to create top of tassel, then knot again at ends to form loop. Cut raffia bottom to create fringe. Place a fishing weight inside bundle toward top; tie a knot below weight using more raffia. Make four tassels total. Sew decorative buttons onto each corner of the tablecloth, and hang tassels by loops.
Fire and water: To create an illuminating centerpiece, place a glass cylindrical vase inside another that is slightly larger (secure them with floral adhesive), and then pour tinted water in between them. Pillar candles are best for this project; not only are they pretty, but their weight will further anchor the interior vase. For added light play, make a series of these centerpieces in different shades of the same hue (a few extra drops of food coloring will yield the desired contrast).Snipping point: As many cooks will vouch, the secret to great grilled shrimp is cooking them in their shells a technique that prevents the flesh from drying out or burning. To spend more time eating and less time peeling, prep the shrimp before they go onto the grate. Cut down the back of each shrimp using kitchen shears (devein while you snip), and the shells will easily come off later.
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