Kitchen Witch - Creole Stuffed Tomatoes

Summer, New Orleans style

"There ain't nothin' like a Creole tomato." That's what folks kept telling me during a recent visit to New Orleans. In fact, while I was there, the Creole Tomato Festival was underway, a two-day tribute to the love apple, complete with demos, tomatoey tastings and crates of pomodoros for sale.

As intrigued as I was by the New Orleanian love for the tomato, I wasn't exactly embracing the local vibration. After all, I had my loyalties to consider. As a kid, I spent the summer in south Jersey, where tomatoes were like religion in July and August.

"Jersey tomatoes." That's all you needed to know. Those two words meant sun-kissed red flesh that's both sweet and savory, juicy yet not watery, and that smells like the earth.

Come August, we'd eat them nonstop, sliced in salads, with corn on the cob, but mostly as tomato sandwiches.

As an adult, I've eaten my share of superior tomatoes from soil in other lands, but none ever compared to the Jersey vined beauties that remain Etch-A-Sketched in my brain.

I had an experience that was close just last week, with tomatoes from southeastern Pennsylvania. I'm thinking it's early in the season, but these mamas were plump, full of color, and yes, showing great promise with deep red pulp.

The occasion was a dinner party, so something picturesque was in order. I borrowed a fitting tomatoey idea from Creole diva Leah Chase, who's still cooking at the age of 84, and decided to stuff 'em like they do in Louisiana.

Now I might always be a Jersey-tomato girl at heart, but damn did that Creole filling do a number on my soul. The way the ham talks to the shrimp that talks to the garlic, onion and herbs and how, collectively, they coax the tomato shell into a melting mélange not unlike jelly, well, that's alchemy.

No, it's simply being Creole.

Creole Stuffed Tomatoes

Adapted from Leah Chase, Dooky Chase Restaurant, New Orleans

6 medium or large vine tomatoes (avoid small tomatoes as they easily tear)

3 tablespoons olive oil or butter

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/2 pound ham steak, diced

6-8 small or medium shrimp, peeled and roughly chopped

3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon fresh chopped basil leaves

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/4 cup plain bread crumbs (optional)

Cut tops off tomatoes. With a small spoon or melon baller, scoop out pulp and seeds and reserve in a small bowl.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat oil or butter in a skillet over medium heat. Cook onion and garlic until soft, about 3 minutes. Add ham until brown, about 3 minutes. Add shrimp, cooking until opaque, about 3 minutes. Add tomato pulp, herbs, salt and cayenne, and bring mixture to a boil.

Lower heat and simmer, allowing liquid to reduce by half. You do not want mixture to be soupy. Taste for salt and adjust accordingly. Stuff tomatoes with filling and top with bread crumbs, if using.

Place a dollop of butter on top of each tomato and place in oven. Cook until bubbly, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.

Culinary questions? Contact Kim O'Donnel at kim.odonnel@creativeloafing.com.

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