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Recipes and Stories

3 August 2012: Seafood-Stuffed Tomatoes

Savannah Seafood-Stuffed Tomatoes, from The Savannah Cookbook; photography by John Carrington
Fresh tomatoes, sweet shrimp, and delicate blue crab have a great affinity for one another, so it is no surprise to find any two of them combined in the pot wherever they all thrive, but especially in the tidewater regions of the Deep South. There’s Crab and Tomato Stew, Shrimp Creole, Shrimp and Tomato Pie, Seafood Gumbo—as many variations as there are coastal cooks. One of the loveliest and simplest ways of combining them, however, is when ripe tomatoes are used as a delicate casing for what amounts to a shellfish gratin.

The most exquisitely simple version I’ve ever come across was in The Texas Cookbook, a community cookbook published by First Presbyterian Church of Houston in 1883, consisting of ripe tomatoes filled with fresh gulf shrimp, a bit of onion, a handful of breadcrumbs—and not much else. The only thing to top it is when Lowcountry cooks add seasonal crab to the mixture. When tomatoes, shrimp and crab come together in the same dish, the results are downright magical, and since they’re all at the height of their season, we do well to take full advantage of that magic.

The recipe that follows is adapted from a couple of nineteenth-century community cookbooks. It may seem a bit old fashioned, but like all true classics, its fresh flavors and perfect balance are timeless. While it does require heating up the oven during the hottest time of the year, the baking here is necessarily brief, so that the shellfish and tomato casings don’t overcook and lose their wonderfully fresh flavor.

Savannah Seafood-Stuffed Tomatoes
Serves 4

4 medium tomatoes
Salt
½ pound (headless weight) small shrimp
½ pound (1 packed cup) picked crabmeat
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
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 peppermill
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, then 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 and set it aside. Lightly salt the shells and invert them over a colander.
2. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil and add a large pinch of salt and the shrimp. Cover, count 2 minutes, and immediately drain them (if it comes back to a boil before 2 minutes, drain it immediately). Rinse the shrimp 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. Heat 2 tablespoons butter and the onion in a sauté pan over medium heat, and sauté, tossing, until it is translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about half a minute more, then add the chopped tomato pulp and cook until it is beginning to break down and its juices are thickening, about 4 minutes. Add both herbs and the coarse crumbs and toss well. 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 square casserole, wipe the inside of the tomato shells dry and put them in it, open side up. Divide the filling among them.
5. Wipe out the pan in which the onion and tomato pulp were cooked and add the remaining butter. Melt it over low heat and add the fine crumbs. Toss until even mixed and sprinkle them over the tops of the tomatoes. Carefully pour boiling water around them until it comes not quite halfway up the sides of the tomatoes. Bake until the shells are barely cooked and the filling is hot through, about 20 minutes.
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