The Perfect Side Dish—Summer Tomatoes with a Provencal Stuffing

Grocery shopping at my neighborhood market this summer in Paris, I noticed a bin of tomatoes labeled “tomates pour rôtir,” which means “tomatoes for roasting.” I put several of the deep red orbs in my cart, imagining that they would be delicious stuffed.
Back in my small apartment kitchen, I scooped out the seeds and flesh, and filled the cavities with a mixture of homemade breadcrumbs, sautéed shallots, bits of creamy goat cheese, and herbs. Then I popped the tomatoes into the oven for less than half an hour until they were hot and the cheese had melted. The tomatoes held up beautifully in the oven and were indeed perfect for roasting.  For serving each tomato was garnished simply with a fresh basil sprig.
Back home in New England, I was surprised to find similar tomatoes at a nearby Whole Foods.

There, in another bin, was a mound of deep crimson tomatoes on the vine accompanied by a sign that said “perfect for roasting.” They were smaller in size than their French counterparts, but equally delicious!

These stuffed tomatoes are a dream to use for entertaining since they can be prepared 6 hours ahead, and baked when needed. They make a delectable side to rosemary-scented lamb chops or steaks; or try them with grilled chicken that has been marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, and garlic.
Tomates à la provençale
4 large tomatoes, about 8 ounces each or 6 medium tomatoes, about 4 ounces each
            (preferably tomatoes with a thick skin such as tomatoes on the vine)
Kosher salt
3 tablespoons olive oil plus extra for the baking dish and for drizzling on tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped shallots
1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs (See note.)
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons dried crushed thyme
3 1/2 to 4 ounces creamy goat cheese
4 to 8 basil sprigs for garnish
1. Cut a 1/4 inch slice from the top (stem end) of the tomatoes and save the slices for another use. Using a paring or grapefruit knife, cut out the seeds and flesh from the cavities. Salt the insides of the tomatoes and turn them upside down on a plate to stand for 10 minutes.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a medium, heavy skillet set over medium heat. When hot, add the shallots and stir and cook until softened and translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove to a plate. Add 2 more tablespoons oil to the skillet and when hot, add the breadcrumbs and stir and cook to dry out slightly, only 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cooked shallots, dried basil, thyme, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cool slightly.
3. Break the goat cheese into small pieces and stir 2/3 into the breadcrumb mixture. Use your fingers to combine the cheese with the other ingredients as you would when making a crumble. Spoon the stuffing into the tomatoes, mounding slightly on the top. (Tomatoes can be prepared 6 hours ahead; cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before baking.)
4. Arrange a rack at center position and preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange tomatoes in a lightly oiled baking dish. Drizzle the top of each tomato with about a 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil. Bake 10 minutes, then remove from oven and sprinkle the remaining bits of goat cheese over the tomatoes. Continue to bake until stuffing is lightly browned and hot, about 10 to 15 minutes or more. Do not overcook or the skin of the tomatoes could start to break. Transfer tomatoes to a serving platter and garnish each with a basil sprig. Serves 4 to 6.
Note: To make bread crumbs, use a 1- to 2-day-old good quality peasant or country bread with crusts removed and process large chunks of it in a food processor to make coarse crumbs. Sourdough bread works particularly well.
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