James Worley fell in love with tomatoes around the same time he fell in love with his wife.
“When we were dating, instead of bringing her flowers, I would bring tomatoes from roadside stands,” Worley says.
After they got married, Worley and his wife, Jennifer Nugent, bought a house in south Kansas City and planted three garden beds. Now their yard boasts 35 beds bursting with 80 varieties of heirloom tomatoes in all shapes, sizes and colors, from classic red to deep purple and vibrant yellow.
Unlike conventionally grown tomatoes, heirloom varieties are pollinated naturally by insects, birds or wind. There are thousands of documented species, each with a distinct name and flavor profile.
About five years ago, old-school heirlooms blossomed into widespread popularity, says local grower Liz Kurlbaum of Kurlbaum’s Heirloom Tomatoes in Kansas City, Kan. Now the arrival of the summer fruit is a highly anticipated event for local gardeners, chefs and farmers market customers.
Every summer Worley organizes a tasting for dozens of local tomato lovers. About 100 people participated in this year’s tasting in late July at the Local Pig’s East Bottoms location. They sampled 48 varieties with names such as Sunrise Bumblebee, Lucky Tiger and Purple Dream, and declared Brad’s Black Heart the best of the bunch. The heart-shaped fruit has burgundy flesh ripe with complex flavors.
“That’s the beauty of the tomato,” Worley says. “There’s one to suit every taste.”
Heirlooms are like wines: Each has its own set of nuanced flavors. Red and pink tomato varieties often “have that old-timey acid bite you remember from the tomatoes at Grandma’s house,” Worley says, while yellow and orange varieties are sweet and mellow. Green heirlooms often taste light and citrusy; purples are earthy and rich.
Michael Peterson, corporate chef at Beer KC, is a fan of Black Krim, a brownish-red variety that tastes rich and sweet. Peterson says the height of tomato season, right about now, “is my favorite time of year except for the Fourth of July.”
The chef orders about 200 pounds of heirlooms every week and uses them in specials at four Westport restaurants and bars: McCoy’s Public House, the Foundry, Beer Kitchen and Char Bar. He uses the tomatoes in tacos at the Foundry, crabcakes at Char Bar and even ice cream at Beer Kitchen.
Peterson says he uses a simpler recipe at home: “Salt and pepper, knife and fork.”
This week, all four Beer KC restaurants have two to five tomato specials on the menu in honor of the first Beer KC Tomato Festival. Peterson is also planning a five-course tomato dinner at the Kurlbaum’s Heirloom Tomatoes farm on Aug. 21. (Tickets cost $110 per person including tax and gratuity; go to kurlbaumtomatoes.com for more information).
The Kurlbaums supply about 40 restaurants with heirlooms, including Jasper’s Restaurant, Michael Smith, Brio and Lidia’s Kansas City. The 65-acre farm grows 31 varieties — sort of like Baskin-Robbins, Liz Kurlbaum jokes — without irrigation or refrigeration, which can compromise flavor.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Liz Kurlbaum drove a John Deere utility vehicle up a steep hillside overlooking 3,000 green, bushy tomato plants surrounded by orange plastic netting and an electrified fence installed to keep hungry deer at bay.
“The plants look really good,” she says, “but the excessive amount of rain has adversely affected the crop.”
Last year’s yield was 18,000 pounds; Kurlbaum hopes to produce 6,000 pounds this year.
Many of the Kurlbaums’ tomatoes end up at Brio Tuscan Grille on the Country Club Plaza with executive chef T.J. Wright. At his annual tomato dinner last month, Wright crafted three cocktails using the fruit, including a bellini that combined sweet heirloom tomato juice with peach schnapps and prosecco. Wright also prepared bruschetta topped with tomato jam and bacon, chilled gazpacho, tomato-stuffed pork tenderloin and green tomato cake with a brown butter glaze.
Brio customers gobble up 150 to 200 pounds of heirlooms every four or five days, Wright says. The best-selling special is a caprese salad ($11.95), made by layering slices with basil, mozzarella and a drizzle of olive oil.
“That’s really all you need to do,” Wright says, “because the tomato is the star of the show.”
Heirlooms are also headlining at Jasper’s Restaurant, where servers plate ruby-colored slices alongside fresh mozzarella that’s stretched and pulled right at the table. Mirabile says the “tableside mozzarella theater,” which costs $9.95 per person for a minimum of two people, packs his restaurant to capacity most nights during the season.
Mirabile also uses heirlooms in panzanella, a rustic salad made with hunks of sourdough bread, cucumber, red onion, Greek olives and fresh basil. The chef offered the seasonal menu item earlier than usual this year, in June, after he received a shipment of tomatoes from Powell Gardens.
Last year, the botanical garden in Kingsville, Mo., started growing tomatoes in high tunnels, or unheated greenhouses. Powell Gardens executive director Eric Tschanz says the high tunnels protected the crop on cool and soggy spring days.
Last month, during the height of production, Powell Gardens sent four tons of tomatoes per week to local chefs and Cosentino’s markets in Lee’s Summit, Blue Springs and Brookside. In addition to traditional red slicers, the farm produces three heirloom varieties: Persimmon, Brandywine and Cherokee Purple, a perennial favorite among local chefs.
Powell Gardens supplies heirlooms to about a dozen local restaurants, including Lidia’s Kansas City. The Freight House restaurant toasts tomatoes every summer with a five-course meal.
“This year we did two of them because they sell out so quickly,” says chef de cuisine Cody Hogan.
At the July 28 dinner, customers who braved the 100-degree heat wave were greeted with an orange Bloody Mary that tasted like tomatoes freshly plucked from the vine and still warm from the sun.
The meal was a feast for the senses: Picture sweet hunks of pickled green tomato atop sliced pork shoulder, bits of scarlet sundried tomato swimming in creamy risotto, and a thick, rare beef tenderloin steak topped with an equally thick slice of pinkish beefsteak tomato under a blanket of melted mozzarella.
It’s not easy to pull off a tomato dessert, but pastry chef Danica Pollard wowed the crowd with her cobbler, made with peaches and yellow heirloom tomatoes with a flavor and texture almost like apricots.
Hogan, an avid gardener, grows San Marzanos and cherry tomatoes at home. He roasts the smaller variety with breadcrumbs to concentrate their flavor, and uses the larger ones to make a raw pasta sauce.
“It could not be more easy,” Hogan says. “You cut up your best, most flavorful raw tomatoes, add olive oil, sprigs of basil, a clove or two of garlic. Let it sit for a few hours, then top with pasta and add a little cheese.”
At Charisse, chef and owner Jason Craine is converting tomato haters with rainbow-colored heirlooms from Roots, Fruits & Greens Farm in Easton, Kan. Craine proudly posts photos of his tomato shipments on Facebook, makes bright yellow pasta sauces from heirlooms and constructs towering pork belly BLTs. He has come a long way for someone who says he grew up thinking tomatoes were “flavorless, slimy blobs.”
Craine didn’t fall for tomatoes, which were once referred to as “love apples,” until a friend convinced him to top a burger with a slice of a variety called UglyRipe. The ribbed fruit was far from picture-perfect with its lopsided shape, but its flavors were kaleidoscopic.
“It was just amazing,” Craine says. “I fell in love immediately.”
Jasper’s Heirloom Tomato Panzanella
Jasper Mirabile makes this rustic summer salad at his restaurant. It’s one of five heirloom tomato recipes he’ll demonstrate at an Aug. 24 cooking class at Olive Tree, 4937 W. 119th St. in Overland Park. Tickets cost $55 each at OliveTreeKC.com.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 loaf sourdough bread
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 heirloom tomatoes, diced
1 cup chopped cucumber
6-8 torn basil leaves, plus more whole leaves to garnish
1 cup chopped red onion
1/2 cup pitted Greek olives
1/4 cup balsamic glaze
Sea salt and pepper to taste
Soak bread with olive oil, then add tomatoes, cucumber, torn basil, onion and olives. Drizzle the balsamic glaze over all. Toss together and chill for 30 minutes.
Season the salad with salt and pepper. Toss until combined. Garnish with basil leaves if desired. Serve alone or on top of broiled fish, chicken or pork.
Per serving, based on 6: 341 calories (54 percent from fat), 21 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 34 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 412 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Source: Jasper Mirabile
Raw Summer Tomato Sauce for Pasta
Toss this raw tomato sauce with cooked pasta for an easy weeknight meal.
Makes 3 to 4 cups
2 pounds ripe summer tomatoes, preferably heirloom varieties, in a mix of colors and shapes
3 to 4 plump peeled garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 large basil leaves (about 3 tablespoons shredded)
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or more or less to taste
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup or more grated Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano or cubed fresh mozzarella (optional)
Rinse the tomatoes, drain and wipe dry. Cut out the core and any other tough parts. Working over a big mixing bowl to catch all the juices, cut the tomatoes — cherry tomatoes in half, regular tomatoes into 1-inch chunks — and drop them in the bowl.
Smash the garlic cloves with the wide side of a chef’s knife and chop into a fine paste. Scatter the garlic paste and the salt over the tomatoes and stir gently. Pile up the basil leaves and cut into thin strips. Scatter these over the tomatoes, then sprinkle in the crushed red pepper. Pour in the oil and fold to coat the tomatoes and distribute the seasonings. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the tomatoes marinate at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours.
Toss the sauce with the pasta and serve as is, or toss in 1 cup grated Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano or cubed fresh mozzarella.
Per 1/4-cup serving, based on 3 cups: 126 calories (78 percent from fat), 11 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 5 milligrams cholesterol, 4 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 131 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Source: Lidia’s Favorite Recipes (Knopf, 2012)
Heirloom Tomato Avocado Caprese Salad
This twist on the traditional caprese salad swaps mozzarella for creamy slices of avocado.
Makes 4 servings
3 medium avocados
1 lemon, juiced
4 medium heirloom tomatoes
1 large bunch fresh basil
Extra-virgin olive oil
Aged balsamic vinegar
Coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Cut the avocado in half horizontally and remove pit. Slice into rounds, then remove peel. Lightly toss avocado slices in lemon juice.
Slice tomatoes and salt lightly.
Layer tomato slices, avocado slices and basil leaves. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, if using. Salt and pepper to taste.
Per serving: 272 calories (70 percent from fat), 23 grams total fat (4 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 18 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 26 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Seared Tomato Cakes With Lump Crab Vinaigrette
Chef Michael Peterson’s twist on crabcakes uses heirloom tomatoes as the star ingredient. He serves the tomato cakes with vinaigrette made with fresh jumbo lump crabmeat. Note: This recipe makes more vinaigrette than you’ll need for one batch of tomato cakes. Use the leftover vinaigrette on salads and grilled chicken or fish.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
4 medium ripe heirloom tomatoes, diced
2 teaspoons sea salt, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided
2 1/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon fresh chives
Cooking oil or clarified butter
For the vinaigrette:
1 cup champagne or aged white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons finely diced fresh shallots
2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
4 ounces fresh or canned jumbo lump crabmeat, drained
Toss the tomatoes with salt and pepper. Place the tomatoes in a colander over a bowl and allow the tomatoes to drain for at least an hour. Reserve the leftover tomato juice.
Combine the drained tomatoes with mayonnaise, 1/4 cup lemon juice and 1/4 cup olive oil in a medium bowl. Gently fold in the breadcrumbs and chives. Let stand for 30 minutes, then form the mixture into 1/4-cup cakes. In a skillet over medium heat, sear the cakes in oil or clarified butter until they’re crispy on both sides.
To make the vinaigrette: In a medium bowl, combine champagne (or white wine) vinegar with reserved tomato juice, shallots and parsley. Using a whisk, stir the mixture while slowly adding 2 cups of olive oil to form an emulsion. Gently fold in lump crabmeat, then season to taste.
Top each seared tomato cake with about 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette and serve. Refrigerate the leftover vinaigrette.
Per serving, based on 4: 812 calories (84 percent from fat), 79 grams total fat (14 grams saturated), 31 milligrams cholesterol, 28 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 950 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Source: Michael Peterson