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Beach chairs. Check. Umbrella. Check. Lots of good stuff to read. Check. Cooler. Check. Pepper mill, black peppercorns, sea salt, coffee, extra-virgin olive oil, a freshly sharpened utility knife.

Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check.

Packing the car for a week at the beach, down in North Carolina, can be tricky. I like the freewheeling aspect of making do in a rented cottage, but I never regret bringing along a few gotta-haves. The last item on my list is the most important: Two large, low cardboard boxes of New Jersey heirloom tomatoes, in varying shapes, sizes, and degrees of ripeness. There are pounds of them, plenty for salads and squelchy sandwiches best eaten over the kitchen sink. The tomatoes are nestled in beach towels, stem side up so their pleasingly plump shoulders won’t get bruised. Check.

Our extended family that gathers each year expands or contracts depending on circumstances. A couple of the many things we all share are a love of the surf and a great reluctance to leave the beach in order to go indoors and make dinner.

That is why we all take turns shopping and cooking, and that is why peel-your-own boiled shrimp is the default meal. Add corn on the cob and a platter of those tomatoes, sliced and drizzled with a lavish amount of good oil (and fresh basil if you’ve remembered to toss some in the cooler), and you have easily attainable perfection in no time flat.

The brown shrimp (Farfantepenaeus aztecus) that are running now are sweet, fat, plentiful*, and, at around $5 (heads-on) or $6.25 (heads-off) a pound, almost heartbreakingly inexpensive. I’m surprised there aren’t skid marks on the highway in front of every roadside stand. These shrimp are also sustainable and what is termed “wild-caught“; just hours before we ate the ones shown above, they were dumped from the hold of a boat working Pamlico Sound. This shallow lagoon separating much of the Outer Banks from the mainland is so broad and long that explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano thought he had reached the Pacific Ocean.

I’m a big believer in protecting the physical integrity—thus the flavor and tender texture—of seafood. Unless I’m stuck with very large shrimp, I never fool with deveining. Why open up that thin, resilient armor and run the risk of coarsening such delicate meat? And although there’s no beating the succulence of heads-on shrimp, lots of people prefer the convenience that comes with buying them heads-off.

I also cook shrimp in the smallest amount of water I can get away with, covering them by two inches or so. As far as the seasoning is concerned, I add a quartered lemon and enough sea salt to make cold tap water taste like the ocean. If you are a fan of Old Bay, Zatarain’s, or a homemade seafood boil blend, toss some in as well, but use a light hand so as not to obliterate the clean, briny-sweet flavor of the shellfish.

Even though everyone refers to these as “boiled” shrimp, the object is to not actually boil them. Just bring the seasoned water to an enthusiastic boil and add the unpeeled shrimp. Start timing from here on in; depending on the size of the shrimp and how many pounds of them** are in the pot, I begin checking for doneness at about two minutes. Once the shrimp are a beautiful rosy-pink on the outside, opaque inside, and firm yet tender in texture, immediately drain them in a colander.

Eat them hot out of the shell, with melted butter (add garlic or a spritz of lemon if the spirit moves), or cooled, with a horseradishy cocktail sauce. A New Orleans–style rémoulade would be wonderful too, but I don’t know—too much mincing and measuring for me this week. I would much rather walk the beach and watch a full moon rising.

*Unlike this spring’s white shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus), which suffered a high mortality rate from the harsh winter, the area’s coldest on record (since 1874).

**The adults in my crowd can easily put away at least ¾ pound of (heads-off) shrimp per person. If there are any leftovers, the next day make shrimp rolls for lunch: Peel the shrimp and cut them into chunks. Add mayo, a little Dijon mustard, shredded carrot, some chopped red bell pepper or celery for crunch, and some chopped scallion. Serve in lightly toasted hotdog buns.

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