China-Moon Shrimp. And Knives.

So, yes, when it comes to pickles, I am an unreliable narrator. I love them beyond my ability to interpret how widely loveable they might actually be. I pickle cukes and green beans, beets and red radishes and daikon. I have pickled turnips and cauliflower and a fleshy weed called purslane. I make vinegar pickles. I make fermented pickles, like sauerkraut, kim chi, and classic kosher dills. I make pickles you eat right away and pickles you put up in jars so that you can crack open some sweet, fragrant, turmeric-hued bread and butters in the middle of winter. If you left your Birkenstocks here by mistake, I might put them up in a jar of brine.
So, pickled shrimp. I don't even know what to say, except that I do believe there's precedent, and that it's a fairly traditional Southern dish. But this version is based on the late Barbara Tropp's recipe for Chinese-style Pickled Salmon in her fantabulous China Moon cookbook, and it's one of my favorite party and potluck dishes. After pickling, the shrimp get meaty and chewy, addictively puckery and lip-tinglingly spicy. They're a great gateway seafood for uncertain children because they're so firm and "unshrimply," as Ben puts it. I make them and eat them and crave them and then make them again. You will too. Unless you don't like them. And then you won't.
And, about the knives. These are my kitchen workhorses, and I think that why I'm so happy cooking--or at least part of it--is because I have good, sharp knives that make prep work a pleasure. I can sit down with an enormous heap of vegetables to trim and chop, and if I've got my trusty knives, then I just hunker down contentedly to the task. Plus, they're the same knives I'm teaching my kids to cook with, and I feel much safer with them learning to use sharp knives carefully than with them hacking away at stuff with cruddy knives (you are more likely to cut yourself with a dull knife, apparently, because it takes so much more force to slice with it). I am the person who brings my good knives camping, you brings my good knives to our thumbnail-sized vacation rental, because I miss them if I don't (I make a little stapled cardboard sleeve to make traveling with them less scary.)
So, there are others--a good serrated bread knife, for instance--but these two are the knives I use for almost everything:
This Kyocera ceramic paring knife that I've had for years, and that's still as razor-sharp as the day I opened it. I reach for it constantly.
Oh, lovely knife!There's nothing too hard or soft for it to manage. It's the knife that Birdy uses most of the time for serious cutting, because it fits so nicely in her hand.And this beautiful Wusthof chef's knife.Ben cutting the onions.It is so exquisitely sharp, and wonderfully heavy, and it just feels great in your hand. Of course, it cuts and chops like the dickens. Plus, there's something about the shape that I enjoy for what is likely just an aesthetic reason.
Birdy cutting zukes. She made a cucumber salad the other evening, all by herself! Sliced cukes, fresh mint, and seasoned rice vinegar. She was beyond thrilled.They aren't cheap, these knives, but here's what you tell yourself: one expensive knife costs the same as going out to dinner maybe once or twice--and you'll use it to make hundreds, or more likely thousands, of meals. Or else go ahead and put it on your wish list in case someone is buying you a present.
China-Moon Pickled ShrimpServes 6 as an appetizerActive time: 20 minutes; total time, including pickling: 1 day
Find fragrant Szechwan peppercorns at an Asian market--or substitute black peppercorns. This is the kind of recipe that should have the word "disappearing" in its title. It's like that.
1/4 cup finely slivered ginger1 tablespoon Szechwan peppercorns (or regular peppercorns)1 cup unseasoned rice vinegar or cider vinegar1 cup distilled white vinegar 1/3 cup sugar2 tablespoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)2 or 3 spicy chiles (Serrano or jalapeno) cut into thin rings1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined (thaw frozen shrimp by running cold water over them in a colander for five or so minutes)1 small yellow onion, cut into skinny half moonsMayo, soy sauce, pickled jalapenos for the dipping sauce
Add a tablespoon of the ginger and a teaspoon of the peppercorns to a medium-sized pot of water, and bring it to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, in another medium-sized pot, bring the vinegars, sugar, salt, remaining ginger and peppercorns, and chilis just to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat.
Now add the shrimp to the boiling water, stir, and cook for 2 minutes, until they are just pink. Drain them in a colander, then add them, along with the onion, to the warm brine and refrigerate overnight in a non-reactive bowl or jar (I use a large mason jar for this, and love the old-fashionedness of it).
To serve, drain the shrimp and their seasonings and arrange them on a platter around a dish of dipping sauce made by whisking 1/2 cup of mayonnaise with 1 tablespoon each of soy sauce and pickling liquid, and chopped pickled jalapeno to taste.
This is actually quite simple to make. And good knives make it all the easier! Okay, I'm done sermonizing. For now.The pickling liquid.The shrimp, after their brief poaching. Jar o' YumI played a single game of pingpong, and when I came back upstairs, the shrimp were long gone. Sigh.