Tomatoes are here! All About Summer's Most Exciting Crop

The summer is the best time to cook fresh produce. So many fruits and vegetables are in season and the flavors are outstanding-it makes it easy to eat all the colors of the rainbow.  On the red end of the spectrum, one of the most delicious and versatile ingredients is the bright tomato.

Tomatoes are among the most popular and useful ingredients in cooking around the world. Italian, French, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Latin American, you name it, all sorts of cuisines use tomatoes in many different ways. But with so many uses and so many varieties of tomatoes, it can be difficult to know what to eat with what or which variety is best for which dish. Here are a few basic things to keep in mind when choosing what to buy or, if you have a greenthumb, what to grow.

Tomatoes can be categorized in several different ways. Tomato plants that eventually stop growing and bud into a flower are called "determinate," whereas those that can grow indefinitely are called "indeterminate." They can also be categorized as "heirloom" or "hybrid." Heirloom tomatoes are grown with older varieties of seeds and usually have more interesting colors, shapes, and flavors, whereas hybrid tomatoes are the more common mass-produced variety that generally grow with more uniform features. Another distinguishing factor is whether the tomatoes are grown in a green house, or "hot house," or on a farm. Of course, within each of these categories there is a wide assortment of different varieties.

There are a few common categories, which are mainly based on size and shape. Usually the size and shape of the tomato will partially dictate or indicate the flavor. Some of the more common varieties are: globe, beefsteak, plum, cherry, and grape.

Globe tomatoes are what most people think of when they imagine tomatoes. They have a simple, round shape and work well for fresh eating on their own or in salads and tend to be more on the acidic side. Similar to globes, Beeftsteak tomatoes are quite large and firm. They are perfect to slice for a sandwich or to top a hamburger and work well for cooking because of their high flesh content.

Plum tomatoes are usually oblong or egg-shaped are also very popular for cooking in sauces because of their high solid flesh content. Many Italian chefs choose Roma and San Marzano, which are two common varieties of this very popular choice. Plum tomatoes also stand up well to handling and are therefore a good choice even in the off-season.

Cherry and grape tomatoes are both quite small and sweet. Cherry tomatoes are round and very popular eaten whole as a snack or whole or halved in a salad. Grape tomatoes are about the same size, but are more oblong shaped like plum tomatoes. Like cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes are delicious eaten as a healthy snack or halved in salads, sautes, or egg dishes. Fresh sliced up cherry or grape tomatoes are also great in a fresh summer pasta.