Archive for September, 2011

Best Sunset Photo Ever (By Me, So Far)

I’ve been really into taking photos lately, mainly because we’ve been having awesome sunsets and lots of houseguests, which has led to many fun nights out on the deck enjoying the sunset. I have so much to learn, but I’m really motivated by the small progress I’ve made. I just took this photo and I’m so excited because it actually looks almost exactly like what I saw with my own two eyes. (Click to enlarge and appreciate the details. :))

What I love about this photo is that it shows the clouds, the sunset and the lights in the valley, but you can still barely see the tree trunks. I took another one where the pine needles were crisper, but the colors weren’t as nice. I definitely have a lot to learn!

I’ve decided that I’m not into editing photos aside from cropping and resizing. I’ve color-corrected a few photos, and I kind of feel like I’m cheating. I want to take photos that are accurate depictions of what I’m really seeing at that moment. I realize that there’s some wiggle room with editing, because even unedited photos aren’t always accurate. But sometimes I see really amazing landscape photos online, and for a minute I think, “Wow, that is unbelievably beautiful…I’ve never seen colors that vivid.” Then I think, “I’ve never seen colors that vivid because they don’t exist in nature!” That realization makes me feel kind of sad and jaded. I mean, aren’t the actual colors in nature enough…do they really require enhancement?

DIY Rope Umbrella Stand

Ever since we’ve had our patio table, we’ve been using this DIY umbrella stand to hold our patio umbrella. I thought I would share how we made it so you could DIY it too!

Kidding! That’s the original DIY umbrella stand that John made with a leftover plant container and a sack of post concrete. He put the bottom of our umbrella pole into a 3-mil contractor’s trash bag, wrapped the excess with tape, stuck it in the center of the plant container, and filled it with cement. Once it cured, the umbrella pole and bag came out easily. This thing was cheap and very sturdy, but I wanted something nicer for our deck seating area. After considering different paint options, I finally decided to try covering the umbrella stand in rope, like an old buoy. Here’s the finished product:

I wouldn’t say that this process was exactly “quick and easy” (it took several hours over a few days and was a little fiddly), but it only cost about $35 total and I am super happy with the way it turned out! I bought 100 feet of manilla rope (two 50-foot packages), a big tube of Liquid Nails, and a can of spray paint that matched the rope. I also ended up using some cork, wood glue, and spar urethane that we already had on hand. The estimated cost of $35 is for all the materials, including the concrete and the stuff we had on hand.

I cut off the plant container with a utility knife and spray-painted the concrete to match the rope. I figured that was a good precaution to make it less noticeable if my rope-wrapping wasn’t perfect. Then I started gluing the rope in place. I decided to start at the narrowest end (the bottom of the plant container), which would become the top of the finished umbrella stand. I wiped off as much of the excess glue as I could after snapping this photo.

After gluing the top down, I weighted it with a 4×4 and let it dry so it wouldn’t uncoil (even though Liquid Nails is pretty sticky, I still had to sort of hold the rope in place while I glued it to the top). Once the glue holding the top coil of rope down was dry, I continued wrapping and gluing the rope down the stand. Once I got near the end of the first 50-foot length of rope, I taped everything in place with masking tape and let it dry. I left about the last 8 inches unglued so I could move it around when I glued the next section of rope in place.

Once the glue was dry on the first rope section, I flipped the umbrella stand over so the bottom was facing up, then I continued gluing and wrapping the rope around the rest of the stand, taped it again, and let it dry fully. I should probably mention that I did the second half of this on John’s pottery wheel, which made it waaaaaay easier, since I could rotate it while I glued, instead of having to walk around in circles!

I glued some cork to the bottom of the stand so it wouldn’t scratch our deck, then let that dry.

Once everything was dry, I flipped it over and checked my work. It looked pretty good!

Unfortunately, after I finished high-fiving John, I took a closer look and saw that some of the Liquid Nails had oozed out between the ropes and left unsightly white marks.

I tried touching it up with spray paint. I just sprayed the paint into a puddle on a scrap of cardboard, then used a foam brush to carefully dab paint over the dried Liquid Nails. Since the paint was a good match for the manilla rope, it worked great! I seriously can hardly tell where I did the touch-up painting!

After the paint was dry, John and I decided that it wouldn’t hurt to give the finished umbrella stand a good coat of spar urethane to protect it from the elements. I applied the spar urethane liberally with a brush. I didn’t photograph this step because it made absolutely no difference in how the stand looked. In fact, the only way I could tell where I had applied it was to tap with my fingers to see which areas were tacky (from the spar urethane)! Once I let the stand dry a final time, we put our new DIY rope umbrella stand in place under our patio table.

Big upgrade! I love how the natural color and texture of the manilla rope blends in with the wooden deck table and chairs, and with our Trex deck. I totally recommend this as a DIY project that is affordable, pretty easily accomplished, and looks way fancier and more expensive than it is. Now I want to make more improvements to our deck seating area! I’m thinking that a nice candle and some colorful pillows would look good. I’m also trying to decide what to do with the laminate table top, which looks okay in photos but isn’t great in real life (although John thinks it’s fine). Please let me know if you have any suggestions or other good DIY ideas!

Cherry Tomato Sauce (to Freeze)

Let me just start by saying that we’ve learned our lesson, and next year we will be planting fewer cherry tomatoes and more “regular” tomatoes (we have three cherry tomato plants this year). John and I both love cherry tomatoes when they’re fresh off the vine, because they are so sweet and don’t require any prep (besides rinsing) before you can use them in salads. But they’re more difficult to preserve because they are almost impossible to efficiently peel, even using my favorite lazy method. And like I’ve said before, I’m just not ready to tackle the tomato-canning process. The only solution I’ve come up with to preserve cherry tomatoes is to make – and then freeze – cherry tomato sauce. The good news is that sauce made from cherry tomatoes is incredibly sweet and flavorful, so it’s totally worth the effort. I make a very basic sauce, because we often add extra ingredients when we use it later on, so I want this sauce to be adaptable. Here’s my basic recipe:

Cherry Tomato Sauce (to Freeze)
Makes about 5 pints, depending on how much you reduce the sauce.
1 c. olive oil
2 onions, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
about 5 quarts cherry tomatoes, rinsed
2 bay leaves
salt

1. Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. I use a lot of olive oil in my tomato sauce because I think it helps maintain the flavor of the sauce when it freezes. It’s also really tasty!
2. Add the onions and carrot and saute briefly.
3. Add the cherry tomatoes and stir occasionally until they start to pop and form a very watery sauce. Add the bay leaves and salt to taste (remember it will cook down, so go easy on the salt to start with).
4. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce seems more “saucy” than “watery,” then gradually reduce the heat as needed to keep the sauce from sputtering. Simmer for a couple of hours, until the sauce is a little thinner than you want it to be. Taste and add more salt if needed.
5. Puree the sauce in a blender, being careful not to put too much in at once. Make sure to let the steam vent out of the blender as you go.
6. Strain the sauce to remove the peels and seeds. I just pour the sauce through a plastic strainer, and use a silicone spatula to stir it around until I’m left with just peels and seeds (see photo below).
7. Pour the sauce into clean pint-sized freezer-safe jars, making sure to leave a generous 1/2-inch head space to allow for expansion when the sauce freezes. If you decide to use quart-sized jars, I recommend leaving 1 inch of head space.
8. Let cool to about room temperature (30-45 minutes), then screw on the lids, label and freeze.

If the process sounds involved, let me assure you it’s really not. The prep work is minimal, and you basically just let it do its thing for a few hours. The only part that requires any real effort is the blending and straining, and you can avoid that if you have a food mill (I don’t). Unfortunately, there’s no way around picking all those dang cherry tomatoes. Next year…

Freezing Tomatoes (The Lazy Way)

Over the holiday weekend, I was chatting with my friend J about different methods of preserving tomatoes. I knew that I was going to need to start processing some of our garden produce, and I’m never quite sure what to do with all of our tomatoes. I’ve frozen tomato sauce successfully, but we end up buying a lot of canned tomatoes during the winter. Canning tomatoes safely at home requires a very specific process that I’m just not ready to tackle. Most methods I’ve heard of for freezing tomatoes require you to blanch and peel them first. I’ve done that before, and it’s messy and time-consuming – enough so that I really, really didn’t want to do it. Still, one of my goals this season was to preserve more of our garden tomatoes and reduce our use of canned tomatoes.

I’ve mentioned before that J knows a lot about keeping foods fresh, and this weekend she shared a tip that was almost too good to be true. J said that her Mother-in-Law and Grandmother-in-Law both freeze tomatoes – without blanching and peeling them – using an incredibly simple method. They just lop the top off the tomatoes and toss them in a bag in the freezer. When you defrost the tomatoes, the peel comes right off! Naturally, I was really excited to try this method myself.

I started by picked the ripe garden tomatoes. I’ve read that you get the best results when you process fruits and veggies as soon as possible after picking.

We don’t use any funky chemicals in our garden, but this year we started to get blossom-end rot, so we sprayed a calcium solution on the plant leaves (which was totally effective, by the way). Although the foliar calcium treatment is organic, I still soaked the tomatoes in water to remove any over-spray residue. Then I just cut off the tops, along with any old bits of blossom-end rot and any cracked areas.

I put the tomatoes in plastic bags in the freezer. I pulled a couple out the next morning to see if the method really works. I put the frozen tomatoes in a bowl to defrost (you can also run them under warm water).

After the outside of the tomatoes defrosted, I tried peeling them. Just like J said, the peels slipped right off, and I was left with perfectly peeled garden tomatoes to use in place of purchased canned tomatoes!

I am so thrilled with this easy and effective method of freezing tomatoes! I feel really proud that I can easily put up more of our garden tomatoes and reduce our need to buy canned tomatoes during the winter. Now I’m starting to think that preserving produce can actually be really easy if you just find the right method…and this method is even easier than driving to the store to buy a can of tomatoes!