Here in the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, stuffed vegetables have long been a beloved part of our summer tables. Recipes for them date back well into the nineteenth century. Though they’re most often cooked, tomatoes and sweet peppers are also hollowed out and used raw as a natural cup for holding chicken, crab, shrimp, and fish salads.
When they’re cooked, peppers, summer squash, and tomatoes may be simply filled with their own pulp mixed with stale crumbs or leftover cooked rice and seasonings. They may also be filled with a chopped leafy vegetable such as spinach bound in a thick béchamel. Often, the stuffing will include chopped meat, poultry, seafood, or even pecans or peanuts.
In the old days, when formal dinner menus were more elaborate, such “fancy made dishes” would have been used to round out the corners of the formal table or would’ve been served at luncheon. Today, they’re often the first course of a more formal meal or main dish of a company lunch, although they’re really substantial enough to suffice as main dish at dinner or supper, as well.
But regardless of how or when you serve them, the really lovely thing about them is that they can usually be made ahead and reheated—while you’re out on the porch cooling off with a tall, frosty glass of sweet tea or perhaps something a bit stronger.
Lowcountry cooks have long known that fresh tomatoes, sweet inlet shrimp, and delicate blue crab are all made for one another. And when they all come together in the same dish, good things are bound to happen. The savory stuffing for these tomatoes is adapted from a couple of very old Savannah community cookbooks, but the flavors are fresh and anything but old-fashioned.
4 medium tomatoes
½ pound (headless weight) small shrimp
½ pound (1 packed cup) picked crabmeat
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
½ cup minced yellow onion (about half a medium onion)
2 large (or 3 medium) cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
1 rounded tablespoon chopped parsley
1 rounded tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 cup coarsely crushed cracker crumbs
Whole black pepper in a mill
Ground cayenne pepper
Whole nutmeg in a grater
¼ cup fine cracker crumbs
1. Cut ¼-inch from the stem end of the tomatoes, scoop out and discard their seeds, and carefully scoop out the inner pulp with a sharp spoon or melon baller, leaving the outer walls of each tomato intact. Roughly chop the pulp. Lightly salt the shells and invert them over a colander.
2. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil and add the shrimp. As soon as the shrimp are curled and pink and 2 or 3 of them float, immediately drain them. Rinse them under cold running water, peel, and if they are not very small, cut them in 2 or 3 pieces. Pick over the crabmeat for bits of shell.
3. Put 2 tablespoons butter and the onion in a sauté pan over medium heat and sauté, tossing, until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about half a minute, then add the tomato pulp and cook until it is beginning to break down and its juices are thick, about 4 minutes. Add both herbs and the coarse crumbs and toss. Off the heat, add the crab and shrimp and toss until evenly mixed. Season it well with salt, pepper, cayenne, and nutmeg.
4. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 375° F. Butter a 9-inch casserole. Pat the inside of the tomato shells dry and put them in the casserole, open side up. Divide the filling among them, mounding it on top.
5. Wipe out the pan in which the filling was made and add the remaining tablespoon of butter. Melt it over low heat, add the fine crumbs, and toss until the butter is evenly absorbed and sprinkle them over the tops of the tomatoes. Carefully pour boiling water around them until it comes not quite halfway up their sides. Bake until the tomatoes are barely cooked and the filling is hot through, about 20 minutes.
Recipe and headnote text from The Savannah Cookbook, copyright © 2008 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved.