Quick Bite: Easy as Shrimp Pie
For Charlestonians of centuries past, Sunday supper often consisted of a casserole highlighting the fruits of the season’s harvest
We think of casseroles as modern, but they became common on local tables in the late 19th century, when most downtown households employed a cook. Traditionally given Sunday afternoons off, the cook put together a savory main dish, then called a “pie,” that the mistress could simply slide into the oven before supper. These pies were often composed of leftovers from the midday meal—meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, and vegetables mixed with leftover rice, stale bread, or cracker crumbs.
During Lowcountry summers, brown creek shrimp made popular additions to Sunday casseroles. Sarah Rutledge included two shrimp pie recipes in The Carolina Housewife (1847), and there are seven in the Junior League’s classic Charleston Receipts (1950).
Of all these variations, Miss Rutledge’s “Baked Shrimps and Tomatoes” was the loveliest. A composition of shrimp, stewed tomatoes, and crumbs, enriched with butter and seasoned with the restraint that sweet shrimp and tomatoes demand, it was already a standard on Lowcountry tables when she set it down and would remain so well into the 20th century.
For today’s cooks, a few notes on Miss Rutledge’s ingredients: When she calls for “pounded biscuit,” she isn’t referring to the breakfast bread common today; she’s using the word’s older form, meaning crackers. Dried biscuit crumbs can be used, but oyster crackers are closer to her intent.
Most modern cooks will reach for a can of stewed tomatoes, and this will work, but Miss Rutledge meant for her readers to use fresh fruit. Taking the extra step of stewing your own will make all the difference in the world to the flavor.
Baked Shrimps & Tomatoes Excerpted from The Carolina Housewife
Butter well a deep dish, upon which place a thick layer of pounded biscuit. Having picked and boiled your shrimps, put them upon the biscuit; a layer of shrimps, with small pieces of butter, a little pepper, mace, or nutmeg. On the top of the shrimps a layer of stewed tomatoes, with a little butter, pepper, and salt. Then add a thin layer of beat biscuit, and another of shrimps, and so on, till three or four layers of both are put in the dish. The last layer must be of biscuit. Bake, and brown the whole.
Here, Sarah Rutledge’s 1847 Baked Shrimps and Tomatoes recipe is translated for use in a modern kitchen.
- 8 large, ripe tomatoes (about 3 lbs.)
- 1 small onion, minced
- About 6 Tbs. unsalted butter
- About 2 cups dry unsalted cracker crumbs (such as oyster crackers, crushed)
- 1½ lbs. headed medium shrimp (preferably local brown shrimp), peeled and cooked
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Ground mace or freshly grated nutmeg
Blanch and peel the tomatoes, then quarter, seed, and chop them, reserving their juices.
Put the tomatoes, reserved juices, and onion in a saucepan and heat over medium high. As soon as the mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat to a bare simmer and cook until the onions begin to soften, about five minutes. Turn off the heat.
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 375°F. Choose a deep two-quart casserole dish that will hold all the ingredients in three layers and grease it well with butter. Put about a half cup of crumbs in the bottom of the dish, followed by a third of the shrimp and then a third of the tomatoes. Dot with butter and season well with a healthy pinch of salt, pepper, and/or mace or nutmeg. Repeat two more layers with remaining crumbs, shrimp, tomatoes, and seasonings, reserving enough crumbs to cover the top.
Dot with butter and bake until nicely browned, about 20 to 30 minutes.