No matter how you say it, the tomato is one of our most versatile fruits. That's right, it's technically a fruit; it was given vegetable status for trade purposes way back in the 1890s, and the label stuck.

Rich in flavor, nutrients, and possibilities, the tomato enhances everything from soup to juice to salsa to pasta dishes and pizza. And for just 26 calories, one medium tomato provides a respectable amount of folate, potassium, and vitamins A and C. One pommes d'amour (love apple), as the French like to call it, also has as much fiber—about 1.5 grams—as a slice of whole wheat bread.

Lots of Lycopene

Tomatoes get their rich, red color—and the adoration of nutrition scientists—from their lycopene content. Lycopene, which is one of the many health-promoting carotenoids that are abundant in fruits and vegetables, is an antioxidant that has been proposed to reduce the risk for heart disease, cataracts, macular degeneration, pre-eclampsia (a condition that can occur during pregnancy), and various types of cancer. However, the evidence for these potential benefits is weak.

Go Ahead, Add Fat and Processing

Lycopene may be best absorbed from processed tomato products such as juice, sauce, paste, and ketchup. Heat or a small amount of fat also enhances absorption of lycopene. Therefore, a garden salad drizzled with olive oil, a tomato-basil-mozzarella salad, pizza, or pasta made with a little oil or cheese and a red sauce are all great ways to get a healthy dose of lycopene.

A Tomato a Day...

What exactly constitutes a "healthy dose" of lycopene? While there is no universal recommendation yet, the amount found in 5-7 servings of tomato products per week (about one per day) has been shown in some studies to decrease the risk for cancer. One serving equals one cup of tomato soup, ½ cup of tomato sauce, or eight ounces of vegetable juice. (Note: It takes just over nine tablespoons of ketchup to get the same amount of lycopene as there is in ½ cup of tomato sauce).

Choosing Tomatoes

Fresh tomatoes are available year-round, although the peak season runs from June through September. As you hunt through the produce in the market, keep in mind that the perfect tomato is heavy for its size, well-shaped, and firm, but gives slightly to palm pressure. It is also noticeably fragrant, richly colored, and free from blemishes.

Vine-ripened tomatoes are the most succulent and flavorful tomatoes, but they are very perishable, and therefore best purchased from specialty produce markets that allow for a shorter time from the vine to your kitchen. Here's a quick primer on the many other varieties of tomatoes available:

Type of TomatoDescriptionBest eaten as...
BeefsteakLarge, bright red, slightly ellipticalEither raw or cooked
GlobeMedium sized, firm, juicyEither raw or cooked
Plum Egg shaped
Red and yellow versions
Raw
Green tomatoMedium sizedTangy flavor makes it excellent for frying, broiling, and adding to relishes
Cherry 1-inch in diameter
Red or yellow-gold bright color
Raw in salad
Garnish
Yellow cherry is slightly less acidic than the red and therefore somewhat blander in flavor
Yellow pearSlightly smaller than cherry tomato and resembles a tiny pearRaw in salad
Currant The tiniest of all tomatoes
Both red and yellow
Sweet, crisp flesh
Garnish

Tomato Temperatures

Once you get home, don't put these perfect tomatoes in the fridge with your other fruits and vegetables; the cool temperatures can make the flesh pulpy and kill the flavor. Instead, keep ripened tomatoes at room temperature and use them within a few days. If they're not yet ripe, place them in a pierced paper bag with an apple for several days, at room temperature, to ripen. Keep tomatoes out of the sun, too.

From a Can or Jar

Here's the lowdown on the tomato products you'll find on the shelves at the local market:

Type of TomatoDescriptionBest used in...
Sun-dried tomatoes Dried in the sun
Dark red color
Chewy, intensely flavored, sweet
Sauces, soups, sandwiches, salads, and other dishes
Canned tomatoesAvailable as peeled, whole, crushed, and with herbs addedSauce, soup, various dishes
Tomato pasteAvailable in cans and tubes, consists of tomatoes that have been cooked for several hours, strained, and reduced to a deep red, richly flavored concentrateSauce, various dishes
Tomato pureeTomatoes that have been cooked briefly and strained, resulting in a thick liquidSauce, various dishes
Tomato sauceA slightly thinner tomato puree, often with seasonings and other flavorings addedVarious dishes, base for other sauces

Tomato Recipes

Essential Chopped Tomato-Serrano Salsa

From Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen, Epicurious.com

  • 12 ounces (2 medium-small round or 4 or 5 plum) ripe tomatoes
  • Fresh serrano chiles to taste (roughly 3 to 5, ½ to 1 ounce total, or even more if you like it really picante), stemmed
  • A dozen or so large sprigs of cilantro
  • 1 large garlic clove, peeled and very finely chopped (optional)
  • 1 small (4-ounce) white onion
  • 1 ½ teaspoons fresh lime juice
  • Salt, about ¾ teaspoon

Core the tomatoes, then cut in half widthwise and squeeze out the seeds if you wish (it will give the sauce a less rustic appearance). Finely dice the flesh by slicing it into roughly ¼-inch thick pieces, then cutting each slice into small dice. Scoop into a bowl.

Cut the chiles in half lengthwise (wear rubber gloves if your hands are sensitive to the piquancy of the chiles) and scrape out the seeds if you wish (not only will this make the salsa seem less rustic, but it will make it a little less picante). Chop the chiles as finely as you can, then add them to the tomatoes.

Carefully bunch up the cilantro sprigs, and, with a sharp knife, slice them 1/16-inch thick, stems and all, working your way down from the leafy end until you run out of leaves. Scoop the chopped cilantro into the tomato mixture along with the optional garlic.

Finely dice the onion with a knife (a food processor will turn it into a sour mess), scoop it into a small strainer, then rinse it under cold water. Shake to remove the excess water and add to the tomato mixture. Taste and season with lime juice and salt, and let stand if you have a little time, for the flavors to meld before using or scooping into a salsa dish and serving.

Makes two cups of salsa.

Pasta E Fagioli

From Bon Appétit, Epicurious.com

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 16-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, drained, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • ½ teaspoon dried basil, crumbled
  • ¼ teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
  • 1 15-ounce can cannellini beans (white kidney beans), rinsed, drained
  • Salt and pepper
  • 8 ounces elbow macaroni, freshly cooked
  • Grated Parmesan

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté until brown, about 2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and cook 5 minutes. Add parsley, basil and oregano and simmer until tomatoes soften, stirring occasionally and breaking up tomatoes with back of spoon, about 15 minutes. Add beans and cook until heated through, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Place pasta in bowl and toss with remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Pour sauce over and toss thoroughly. Top with Parmesan.

Serves 2-4.

Halibut in Zesty Tomato Sauce

From Cooking Light, cookinglight.com

  • 2 ½ quarts water
  • 2 cups sliced onion
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped celery
  • 1/3 cup chopped carrot
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 4 black peppercorns
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 6 (6-ounce) halibut filets (about 1 ½ inches thick)
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 4 ½ cups sliced onion
  • 1 cup chopped green bell pepper
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 (14 ½-ounce) can plum tomatoes, undrained and chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 cups hot cooked rice
  • 6 lemon wedges

Combine first 7 ingredients in a Dutch oven and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes. Add halibut and simmer 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand 20 minutes.

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add sliced onion and bell pepper and sauté 5 minutes or until tender. Stir in flour. Add tomatoes and oregano, cover, reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes.

Remove fish from cooking liquid with a slotted spoon and drain well. Discard cooking liquid and solids. Sprinkle fish with salt and black pepper. Arrange over rice and top with tomato sauce. Serve with lemon wedges.

Makes six servings (one serving equals 5 ounces fish, ½ cup rice and ½ cup sauce).