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The Scoop on Tomatoes

Tomatoes are my all-time favorite thing to grow in the garden. I think mostly because there is nothing like the rich multidimensional flavor you get from a tomato that has ripened on the vine. This type of flavor is really only possible to get from a local garden or farmers market because if the produce is fully ripened on the vine, it simply will not stand up to any long-distance shipping. Any vine ripened variety of tomato will give you better flavor and texture, especially when cooking.

Although technically the tomato is considered a fruit, its culinary role is a vegetable and one of the most versatile in my kitchen. It has a myriad of uses for cooking and are, of course, delicious raw in salsas or salads. Tomatoes take on completely new personalities when they are cooked, sautéed, grilled, baked, stewed. Tomatoes make amazing sauces, base for soups or stews. I even made my own catsup once. It tasted great, but it was sure a lot of work for catsup. Tomatoes are a key ingredient in my pizzas and it just wouldn't be summertime without my all-time favorite summer meal: fresh picked corn on the cob, (slathered in butter of course) with a sandwich made with toasted artisan bread, bacon, sautéed onions and peppers and thick, juicy slices of tomatoes. I can just taste it now, yum.

Whether you are growing your own tomatoes, picking from the farmers market, or selecting from the grocery store, I can give you a few tips that can help you select the right variety for the job. Each type of tomato varies in sweetness and water content. Since most of the rich tomato flavor is in the juice, there is a fine balance between being flavorful and being too juicy. The trick is selecting the right tomato for the job.

The most common varieties of tomatoes (Big Boy, Early Girl, Celebrity, Fantastic or Better Boy) are firm but juicy and are good for using raw slicing, chopping, dicing. For sandwiches, a larger tomato like Beefsteak or Supersteak work wonderfully.

If you are making a sauce, you will need a meatier tomato (one that has lower water content). Plum tomatoes, such as Roma, are typically what you find in the local grocery store. If you go to farmers markets, you can usually find San Marzano or other heirloom varieties of plum tomatoes. Plum tomatoes make thicker sauces and are great for oven-drying.

For salads and snacks, cherry or grape tomatoes are the way to go. They are sugary sweet and pack a punch of flavor. They are also a good roasted in the oven where the flavor gets concentrated.

I also love experimenting with many of the recently popular heirloom varieties of tomatoes and seeing what each one has to offer. Choosing a bold color like green or orange, or perhaps one with stripes like a green zebra or even one with a fuzzy skin like the red boar, empowers me in the kitchen and provides so much inspiration to my meal preparation. I still have yet to meet a tomato variety I didn't like.

When purchasing tomatoes, be sure to look for tomatoes that feel firm but not hard. And be wary of any soft spots, a sure sign that the fruit is beginning to over-ripen. The tomatoes should smell fresh and the color should be full and rich. Once you've picked the perfect tomato, be sure to store it properly to preserve freshness. They should be stored at room temperature, away from direct sunlight and never, ever in the refrigerator. Nothing diminishes the fresh taste and texture of tomato like the fridge.

Using the right tool to cut your tomatoes can also help preserve some of the beauty and juiciness of your tomato. Always use a very sharp knife to cut tomatoes or even a serrated knife. If you are a real tomato lover, you might consider purchasing a tomato knife which is designed to quickly cut through the skin without making the tomato mushy. If you are having a hard time getting your cuts started (usually a dull knife is to blame), prick the point of the knife in the fruit and begin your cut there.

Because there are so many ways you can use a tomato, it seems I never run out of ideas on ways to add them to my favorite recipes. Try a few of my favorites like this Fresh Tomato-Basil Sauce.

For a couple varieties of salsa try these great salsas and have a Salsa Fiesta.

Want a new take on a caprese salad? Try this stacking it in this Tomato Salad Stacker recipe.

Or when all else fails, I've been known to bite into one like an apple!

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