Chow Town

Dinner trip to tomato farm accentuates flavors of heirloom tomatoes

Updated: 2013-08-19T16:18:21Z

By JASPER J. MIRABILE JR.

I guess we can thank Alexander Livingston for the tomato dinner at The Kurlbaum’s Heirloom Tomato Farm this past week.

Livingston was not present this year but I can assure you some of his tomato seeds were.

Actually none of the people at the dinner nor the Kurlbaum family have ever met Livingston. Livingston was one of the most important vegetable seedsmen in American history and is often regarded as having given a greater contribution to the development of the tomato as a cultivar than any other person in history.

He was one of the original seed savers. If not for Livingston, we would not have the tomato varieties that we had today. We’re talking Heirloom here my friends, not hybrid.

This past Tuesday, my wife and I traveled to Kurlbaum Heirloom Tomato Farm for a dinner with Slow Food Kansas City.

Not just any dinner on the farm, this was an heirloom tomato dinner with prime rib and all the fixings.

The Kurlbaum family started growing tomatoes in 1997 on the family farm just off Leavenworth Road in Kansas City, Kan. Liz Kurlbaum’s dad bought the farm in 1951. It wasn’t until almost 50 years later that tomatoes became the family business.

For all his life, Sky Kurlbaum has enjoyed growing and eating delicious home-grown tomatoes. But not just any tomatoes. They had to taste like the ones grown more than 35 years ago on his family’s farm in Sandoval, Ill.

After years of being away from the family farm, Sky tried growing his own home-grown delights. But, after the long wait for a taste he found himself disappointed.

“These tomatoes just don’t taste like the ones we used to grow in Sandoval,” he thought.

Maybe it was the climate or the soil. Then, he read about heirloom tomato plants. He thought, “Could it be the type of plants?”

Sky had been planting hybrid plants available at most nurseries, not knowing nurseries over the years traded old heirloom varieties for less tasty, more recent hybrids.

So, he ordered heirloom seeds and grew plants from seed. At harvest, he had his first taste of an heirloom tomato that pulled him back in time to those warm summer Sandoval nights when eating a tomato in the field was like heaven on earth.

“Wow, flavor! That’s the way tomatoes should taste. Just give me a salt shaker and a spot in the dirt.”

The tomato farm was born. Now about 2,500 plants of 25 varieties are planted at the farm.

In 2012, the family harvested more than 12,000 pounds of heirloom tomatoes. Now that’s a lot of tomatoes, but restaurants like Beer Kitchen, Michael Smith, Jasper’s and many more enjoy the fruits of their labor.

What really caught my eye was the way the tomatoes are grown on the farm. They use the modified lasagna method, a method of placing newspaper under each plant.

This provides an environment the earth worms love. They then mulch with old hay or straw and use the lantern method of caging — suspending the cage above the plants from a guy wire. Wow, I love this respect of the land by using sustainable farming methods and organic products for the pests.

This year has not been the kindest to the tomato in Kansas. Too much rain, not enough sun and cool temperatures have really slowed down the tomato crop. If you think about it, everything has gone against the farmers this year but the Kurlbaums did not give up.

Finally in mid-July, tomatoes started arriving at local restaurants such as mine and my Slow Food Kansas City group decided to have an heirloom tomato dinner. And what a dinner we had.

We arrived at the farm and were greeted with wine from Somerset Ridge Winery and Vineyards in Kansas. Members of the family were awaiting our arrival and passing out individual tomato pies and escargots and tomato cups. They were outstanding. I could have made a meal just on these.

To the right of the reception area our chef for the evening and brother-in-law Rick Sigler was finishing up roasting the prime rib. What a setup. You should have seen the grill, smoker and roaster. This man had been slow cooking the prime rib since 10 a.m.

My Slow Food group was then given a tour of the farm by Liz Kurlbaum and her husband Sky. We went right down to see all the tomato plants and hoops where tomatoes are actually started on Easter Sunday.

Sky discussed how the tomatoes are planted and his method of growing. I have never seen a group of more interested people while Sky was talking.

Sky also was proud to announce that his son Eli had discovered a new tomato. They are calling it Eli’s Brandy Purple. It’s a cross between a Cherokee Purple and Brandywine. That is such an accomplishment. We’re talking history here.

I could smell the prime rib down by the tomato plants. It was time to have dinner. I was excited.

We all walked back to the farmhouse and were seated at long tables where we were served some of the best gazpacho I have ever tasted. That was followed by locally grown beets served with the family farm tomatoes and feta cheese.

My mouth was watering because I had already seen the prime rib outside and when the family started serving all of us, it was a sight to be seen — a beautiful slice of heaven rubbed with Herbs de Provence, sea salt and garlic.

The meat was served with mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, more heirloom tomatoes and fresh harvested green beans.

For dessert, we were served grilled local Red Haven peaches with balsamic glaze and frilled pineapple slices. Of course I had to bring something to the table so I served my vanilla bean gelato that was made in the afternoon at my restaurant. It was a perfect accompaniment to the grilled fruit.

What a great evening on the farm. The weather was perfect, the tomatoes were delicious, the appetizers, soup and salad along with the prime rib were all out of this world and a perfect ending with our dessert.

Everyone gathered around the table, a true Slow Food dinner. What a great memory. I cannot wait to come back next year.

And so my friends another great event with local farmers who respect the land and enjoy what they do. I was lucky just to be a part of it.

My suggestion is for you to go out and find some seeds, save them and plant for your family next year. I mean seriously, isn’t that what it’s all about? Wouldn’t Alexander Livingston be proud?

Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s commands the helm of his family’s 59-year-old restaurant, consistently rated one of Kansas City’s best Italian restaurants. In addition to running the restaurant with his brother, Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He hosts many famous chefs on his weekly radio show Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM and sells a line of dressings and sauces.

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