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The Nasty Bits: Pickled Feet

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[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

For many people, the passing of Halloween signals that it is time to start fretting about the gift-giving season. For the offal lover on your list, consider this: pickled offal and animal parts. Nothing says, "I care for you. You are a special, appreciated person in my life," like a jar of pickled feet, and if you've gone through the trouble of pickling the parts yourself, all the better.

I highlight the merits of pickling chicken feet only because poultry claws take on an intriguingly cadaverous look when pickled. Think of Inferi rising out of the water if you happen to be a Harry Potter reader (if you're not, Inferi are corpses bewitched by Voldemort and company to do evil bidding in the later books in the series). But really, any kind of offal, or even marbled meat, tastes good in this pickling liquid.

Shanghainese Pickling Liquid

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The liquid is a Shanghainese specialty, made from the all-important Shaoxing Rice Wine and a combination of fermented rice, salt, and spices, including though not limited to: star anise, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, fennel, and sometimes, a touch of Sichuan peppercorns. In addition to chicken feet, I've pickled trotters, pork neck, pig ears, and duck and chicken gizzards in the liquid and have yet to be less than delighted with the results. It's a light pickling liquid that turns your food item into a juicier, more alcoholic version of itself, so while the essential textures stay the same, the taste is that much more interesting after a nice long soak in the brine.

The pickling liquid can be found wherever you find Shaoxing Rice Wine, which is to say, in the soy sauce and cooking wine aisle at most Chinese markets. So while you may not have heard of this miracle product before, it's actually more accessible than you may think. Like different brands and types of soy sauce, not all pickling liquids are created equal: the inferior ones are mostly saline solutions, whereas the better, usually pricier versions smell rich with fermented rice wine and spices. Look for a label that reads "Pickling Solution." The bottle will more likely than not indicate that it is a specialty of Shanghai or somewhere in that Eastern region of China, though not always.

How to Pickle

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The procedure for pickling is a snap. You simmer whatever you plan to pickle in water in exactly the same manner as you would for stock, which, by the way, is a handy by-product of this process. Then soak your simmered items in the pickling solution for a few hours to a few days, depending on the size of the item and the desired degree of saltiness. I usually add more crushed black peppercorns or a more Sichuan peppercorns to the brine before letting everything soak.

The entire foot, gizzard, and so forth must be immersed in the liquid for even pickling. I like to use my canning jars that double as jam and confit jars, though a cylindrical plastic container will do. A batch of trotters or a large hunk of pork neck takes at least two days to absorb the brine. A smaller item like poultry feet requires just a few hours in the liquid. You can preserve your items in a diluted solution of the pickling liquid simply by adding water to the container (the water prevents your food from getting increasingly salty), or you can remove the food from the solution entirely and keep it in the refrigerator for up to a week. The solution may be used once or twice more before it loses its pickling prowess.

How to Serve

When to serve your pickled products? They are best straight out of the refrigerator as cold appetizers. Since they've been infused with alcohol, the pickled items pair well with a variety of sakes and beers. Or, you can, as I frequently do, carry them around in a container to have a snack on the run, since they don't need to be heated for your eating enjoyment. They really do make a nice gift for the right person, and best of all, yours will probably be the only pickled offal gift sitting on the counter along with the usual assortment of jams, fruitcakes, and cookies.

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