Monday, July 25, 2011

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 Shrimp
Serves 6 as an appetizer
Active 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 ginger
1 tablespoon Szechwan peppercorns (or regular peppercorns)
1 cup unseasoned rice vinegar or cider vinegar
1 cup distilled white vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
2 or 3 spicy chiles (Serrano or jalapeno) cut into thin rings
1 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 moons
Mayo, 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' Yum
I played a single game of pingpong, and when I came back upstairs, the shrimp were long gone. Sigh.


  1. Anonymous3:26 PM

    that sounds delish. and yes, good knives make the prep infinitely more enjoyable. after i'd lived on my own for years, not affording knives, the thing i looked forward to the most as a wedding gift was good knives. i love my wusthof set and mine go camping too, along with my favorite cast iron pan. my boys beg to drink pickle brine, though this might be one variety that they'd avoid though as shrimp isn't high on their list. i'll be making it for sure after my next visit to chinatown's cheap fish market ...

  2. Yummity yum! I just wish I were better at sharpening my knives. I'm weirdly bewildered by this process and so I ignore it, and then I end up with dull knives. I'm surprised I haven't chopped off a finger by now.

  3. I love shrimp and would really love to try this recipe, but darn my shellfish allergy! Breathing takes precedence, but just barely.

  4. I made 12 pints of peach preserves today, and will keep doing so until I cook the entire bushel. I love pickled shrimp, and you're right, it's a Southern thing! I took Soren on a tour of the Whole Foods this morning. The store is opening Wednesday near our house. It's really super-duper fancy, and I can't wait to go see if they have Szechuan peppercorns in their spice department.

  5. Oh wow, ok, I usually can appreciate the yum factor of pretty much everything you've posted, but I can't quite wrap my head around pickled shrimp. It's terrible, being from South Louisiana and not liking seafood. I may as well have a second head. I do love all things from the fruit or vegetable kingdom pickled.

    Thanks for the knife recommendations, though. I have wondered about that ceramic one in your pictures before.

  6. I agree with Bethany, having one brilliant knife makes food prep so easy. I have recently brought a Wusthof Knife set from I was so happy i threw out all my old ones!

  7. Pickled purslane? Since my flower beds are being invaded this year, maybe I'll have to give this a go.

  8. Heather11:16 PM


    our local grocery store butcher will sharpen knives for free. i do have a cheapie knife sharpener i use in between, but WOW does that baby slice well after it's professionally done. ask around!

  9. LOVE shrimp. I'll have to try this.

    I'm a big fan of good knives too. Though I haven't traveled with mine. Though I probably would bring them camping with us, if we went camping. You gotta have good knives if you're going to be cooking. I know someone who takes his knives with him even when he goes to stay at someone's house!


  10. Maybe you can arrange for some kickbacks from Kyocera, one of the makers of ceramic knives - I bought one within 24 hours of reading your post! I thought it would be a less "scary" knife for my daughter to work with in the kitchen. I was surprised to watch her draw it across her finger to see if it was actually sharp. Turned out it was.

  11. Anonymous8:45 AM

    Sounds yummy! I'm kitchen-challenged, but I want to try this recipe. Can I use frozen cooked shrimp? If so, do I still poach them or do I add them straight to the brine? Thanks!

  12. dale in denver4:30 PM

    Went RV camping last week with extended family. Had a few free pots while I was getting everything else ready, so decided I'd give these a try to take as appetizer for one of the nights. Big hit! Huge hit! Next time I am doubling the recipe!

  13. My kids were dismayed that the Kyocera knife did not come with a pink OR purple handle. Oh the humanity! :)

  14. Anonymous12:12 PM

    Just made the pickled shrimp two days ago (for dinner tonight). Also bought the China Moon cook book after looking at it on Amazon (a used copy for ONE cent plus 3.99$ shipping!!!). All those different dipping and cooking oils in the cook book sound delicious. Yum!!

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