The ultimate flavor of summertime has always been a ripe, juicy tomato, sliced thick and placed between two pieces of fresh white bread slathered with mayonnaise.

As delicious as they are on a sandwich, tomatoes are also very versatile for cooking. You can use them for just about everything — stews to salsas. And if the bounty of your garden has tomatoes overflowing into the kitchen, freeze them for the winter.

The tomato is native to the Americas. Tomatoes were first cultivated in 700 AD by Aztecs and Incas. Explorers returning from Mexico introduced the tomato into Europe, where it was first mentioned in 1556.

In 16th-century England the tomato was suspect because people noticed its resemblance to the nightshade, a wild plant with toxic berries. Because of this, tomatoes were called “mad apples” or “rage apples”. However, the French called tomatoes pomme d’amour or “apple of love” as they considered them to be powerful aphrodisiacs.

There are more than 4,000 varieties of tomato, ranging in size from the thumbnail-sized Sugar Babies to the Ponderosas, which can weigh as much as 3 pounds.

Probably the most common flavor combinations with tomatoes are basil and garlic, which are used in Italian and other Mediterranean cuisine. Sliced tomatoes with fresh basil leaves, olive oil, Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper make a simple and delicious side dish.

Tomatoes can also be roasted to add a new and different twist to cooked tomato dishes. Put them right on the grill, with or without a drizzle of olive oil.

Selecting and cooking tomatoes
When selecting fresh tomatoes, color is the key. Look for a tomato that is bright red over 90 percent of its surface. It should be firm, but give slightly when you touch it.

When cooked, the skins of tomatoes shrivel up and add an bitter taste. For recipes that call for peeling tomatoes, core and cut an ‘X’ in the bottom. Drop the tomatoes in a pot of rapidly boiling water for about 5 seconds and remove to a bowl of ice water. The skins should slip right off. To seed, cut the tomato crosswise in half and squeeze the tomato half to force out the seeds.

Tomatoes should be stored stem-side down at room temperature and not refrigerated. Cold temperatures affect the flavor and texture of tomatoes. If a tomato isn’t quite ripe enough, growers advise to simply set it on the kitchen counter out of direct sunlight for a few days.

Tomatoes not only taste great, they may help in preventing some types of cancer. According to a report in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, eating tomatoes and tomato-based products reduced the risk of cancer, possibly because of an antioxidant found in tomatoes. They also contain beneficial amounts of vitamins A and C, folic acid and potassium.

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