Come Into My Kitchen

‘Tomato Whisperer’ James Worley tells all, shares his soup recipe

James Worley (aka: The Tomato Whisperer) shares his tips on growing the fruit that symbolizes summer.
James Worley (aka: The Tomato Whisperer) shares his tips on growing the fruit that symbolizes summer. along@kcstar.com

To-may-to or to-mah-to? Whatever you call them, the fruit is in season right now. We just held our Seventh Annual KC Tomato Times Festival at the Local Pig and had 48 tomato varieties that were ripe and ready. It’s half of what we had last year, but with the cool and rainy start to the growing season, I was thankful to have the diversity of tomato varieties we did.

As a “Tomato Whisperer,” do you have any gardening and growing tips? I would just encourage people, if they don’t have a garden, to start small by even planting just one tomato plant. Growing your own tomatoes is the epitome of backyard gardening, and this fruit just symbolizes summertime.

There are more than 6,000 varieties of tomatoes, and I’ve planted 600 of them. Every year, I plant between 15 to 20 new tomatoes I’ve never tried, with varieties also coming from Asia and Mexico.

Don’t crowd your tomatoes when you plant them; a 3-foot spacing between plants is ideal. Plant tomatoes the first week in May and only water them every 7 to 10 days. This spring and summer has been wetter than usual, and I haven’t had to water my tomatoes at all.

During this time of year, I pick twice a day. You want to pick tomatoes when they develop that first blush, then put them on the counter inside — never in the refrigerator — to finish ripening.

Squirrels are notorious for biting into tomatoes that have just started to turn and then leaving the fruit after taking a couple of bites. As a deterrent, have water away from the beds for animals to drink and be vigilant about picking.

What is your favorite tomato variety? I like Carbon, which is similar to a Cherokee Purple tomato. The Carbon tomato plant is more prolific, yielding anywhere from 20 to 25 tomatoes per plant. People are now seeking tomatoes that are dark purple, orange and yellow with imperfections, because they know these varieties are flavorful. People aren’t necessarily looking for that perfect round red tomato.

If there’s one thing I can encourage people to do, it’s to eat food that’s local and in-season. Now is the time to eat fresh tomatoes. Can and preserve the harvest now, so you can enjoy a taste of tomatoes during the winter. It takes about four to six medium-sized tomatoes to put up and can a quart-sized jar.

You really seem to be in touch with your food roots. Do you have your family to thank for that? My mother, Linda McCay, now lives in Blue Springs, but growing up we always used to have a garden.

But it was my grandfather Jim Boring, who died last August at 80 years of age, that taught me about gardening, hunting and fishing. He lived an amazingly full life, but it gives me great pleasure to know I was the one who turned him onto growing heirloom tomato varieties.

I see a lot of parents that want to teach their children the importance of eating good food. And a backyard garden is a great hobby in which a family is as close to good food as a walk outside the door. Tending a garden also helps you to appreciate the cycles of nature and the work that farmers do to bring fresh produce to your plate. There are also a lot of lessons that come with gardening. And patience is near the top of that list.

Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. E-mail her at pepi@kc.rr.com to nominate a cook.

James Worley

Residence: Kansas City

Occupation: Missouri Department of Conservation education specialist.

Subscribe to Worley’s personal gardening blog, KCTomatoTimes.wordpress.com, or take part in the Missouri Department of Conservation’s events at MDC.mo.gov (click “Kansas City Events”).

Special cooking interest: Back to basics

Family: Married to Jennifer Nugent for 12 years

Creamy Tomato Soup

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium sweet yellow onion, minced

1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese

1 (4-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup milk

1 quart (or 4 cups) canned crushed tomatoes with juice

2 cups canned tomato sauce

2 teaspoons dried basil

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon sugar

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the garlic and onion; cook and stir until the onion has softened and turned translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in blue cheese, cream cheese, heavy cream and milk. Heat until the cheese is melted and the mixture is simmering, about 5 to 7 minutes.

Stir in crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, basil, black pepper and sugar. Continue to cook and stir until the soup is heated through, about 15 to 20 minutes. For a smoother-textured soup, blend part or all with a food processor, blender or immersion blender.

Per serving, based on 4: 351 calories (53 percent from fat), 22 grams total fat (12 grams saturated), 59 milligrams cholesterol, 33 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams protein, 1,279 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.

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