I’ll admit, it kind of snuck up on me this year — peak tomato season.
For many, myself included, that means heirloom tomatoes, those oddly shaped, uniquely colored tomatoes with interesting names, and flavors that are off the charts. If you haven’t had an heirloom tomato, what the heck are you waiting for? You do not know what you’re missing!
James Worley, a local heirloom tomato whisperer put it to me in terms I could relate to.
“Comparing heirloom tomatoes to store-bought hybrid tomatoes is like comparing a bottle of fine wine to a bottle of Boone’s Farm,” Worley said. Got it!
Worley, who works for the Missouri Department of Conversation, is a tomato purist. He told me he’s grown as many as 700 varieties of heirlooms in his lifetime.
His favorites are Brandywine, Sudduth Strain, Carbon, and Sungold. I’m partial to Green Zebras, but I didn’t share that with Worley for fear of being “heirloom shamed. “
Whatever your preference, Worley has good news on the heirloom front. Despite the recent spate of brutally high temperatures, this year’s crop of heirlooms is much better than last year’s. “That hot spell was tough on the plants, but overall, this year is much better for me personally.”
Liz Kurlbaum, who runs an heirloom tomato operation in Kansas City, Kan., with her husband, Sky, went even further. For the Kurlbaums, this year isn’t just good, it’s exceptional.
“Every single one of our plants, every single variety, set fruit. It’s been an unbelievable year,” Liz Kurlbaum told me.
Sky calls it a “bumper crop,” which he says is great.
But it’s the response from customers that really makes his day.
“A 92-year-old lady called us last week and said, ‘I live for your tomatoes and have to have some.’ We delivered within hours,” he said.
Kurlbaum tomatoes can be found at as many as 30 restaurants throughout the metro. Fellow Chowtown blogger and super-chef Jasper Mirabile has featured them at Jasper’s Italian Restaurant for years.
And this year you can find them on the menu at both metro Barley’s Kitchen + Tap restaurants. KC Hops executive chef Ryan Sneed purchased 400 pounds of Kurlbaum heirlooms for two limited menu items — an Heirloom Tomato Pesto Flatbread and an Heirloom Tomato Pesto Salad.
“Liz sends me text message updates every few days, so I know our tomatoes are picked at the peak of ripeness. I’ve been in her kitchen, which is stacked high with hundreds of pounds of tomatoes. I stand behind her tomatoes 100 percent,” Sneed said.
You’ll find more love for heirlooms at Lidia’s during the restaurant’s annual tomato dinner on Aug. 24.
Executive chef Dan Swinney will be crafting a multi-course menu highlighting local heirlooms and their growers. Swinney is thinking outside the tomato box.
“One of the dishes that I’m most excited about preparing on this year’s menu is the Squid Ink Spaghetti with Sea Urchin, Tomato and Chiles. It’s a dish inspired by the recipe in Lidia’s book, “Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine.”
Being a landlocked Midwesterner, I have not had any experience with them, but Lidia loves sea urchin. Every summer, she goes sailing in the Adriatic with friends and they harvest them straight from the ocean and eat them on the boat,” Swinney said.
At the newly renamed Fontaine Hotel on the Country Club Plaza, they’re serving heirlooms from Hicks Farm in Barnard, Mo., which is north of the city.
A tomato dish I had there recently consisted of the Hicks’ heirlooms, fresh mozzarella, arugula, Parmesan, olive oil, champagne vinegar, and green tomato gellee. It was, in a word, fantastic!
Finally, I checked in with Jim and Deb Crum who grow heirloom tomatoes at their farm in Bonner Springs. The Crums supply heirlooms to more than two dozen top restaurants around town, including Stock Hill, The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, and The Farmhouse, among others.
“Heirloom tomatoes are the best. Their shapes and colors make them beautiful. They feel good in your hands, and they are tasty beyond compare,” Deb Crum told me
Craig Adcock, whose Table Ocho is a loyal Crum customer, agrees with that.
“I have a gazpacho recipe in which I use Crum’s heirlooms and it is fantastic. I look forward to making it every year, but, this year, their tomatoes are simply amazing.” Adcock said.
If you’re interested in checking out the heirloom menu items at Barley’s, I’m told they will be available at least through the end of the month.
For more on the Lidia’s tomato dinner, give the restaurant a call at 816-221-3722. To check out the tomato feast at The Fontaine, go to thefontainehotel.com for information. And, to peruse a Table Ocho event, head online to tableocho.com.
Heirloom tomatoes — they aren’t here for long, so take advantage of them while you can. Fortunately, we have a lot of delicious options!
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.