In Season: Tomatoes

These juicy red veggies (technically fruit) are at peak season right now and come in so many varieties. Here’s the low-down on the common ones you may find and a recipe for a simple roasted tomato sauce -- perfect for pasta or bread dipping.

When I go tomato shopping at the supermarket, I rack my brain trying to figure out which tomato to buy based on per-pound cost (out of season they get very pricey). Luckily, these red gems are in season right now and available at your farmers' market. Here’s the low-down on varieties you may find and some creative ideas for using them.

What, Where & When

Tomatoes are part of the nightshade family, which also includes potatoes, peppers and eggplants. Although the U.S. Supreme Court declared them a vegetable in 1893, tomatoes are actually a fruit since they grow on a vine. They're in season from May through October, with some variation depending on where you live.

You may have only tasted red tomatoes, but these guys also come in yellow, orange, green, pink and purple. The yellow varieties are less acidic and aren’t always as sweet as the others. Their shapes and sizes run the game -- from the size of a marble to the size of a grapefruit, from round to egg-shaped to apple-shaped. Each year, food producers grow more than 8 million tons of tomatoes in the U.S. And because they’re so easy to grow yourself, they’re one of the most common backyard garden veggies.

From Large to Small

The larger types of tomatoes include heirloom and beefsteak. Heirloom varieties are very special because their cultivators have saved the seeds and passed down through generations. They come in a range of sizes and cool colors like purple, striped and black. The varieties of heirloom tomatoes are endless — Garden Peach is a small and yellow one with fuzzy skin and Green Zebra is a popular small- to medium-sized heirloom that gets its name from its yellow-and-green zebra stripes and a bright green, sweet flesh. Beefsteak are very large, bright red tomatoes and what you'll often find at the grocery store or farmers' market. Varieties include Big Beef, Jet Star, Mt. Spring and Daybreak.

There are numerous smaller varieties, too -- the most popular being grape, cherry and plum.

Grape: smaller and often named for their sweetness; varieities include Sweet 100 and Supersweet 100

Cherry: about an inch in diameter and usually available in yellow, red or orange; Sungod is the most popular yellow variety

Plum: a.k.a. "Italian plum" or "Paste tomatoes"; red or yello and egg-shaped; have fewer seeds than other tomatoes, making them ideal for sauces

Nutrition Facts

A medium-sized tomato contains 25 calories, no fat and 3 grams of sugar. They’re an excellent source of the antioxidants vitamins A and C and a good source of potassium, folate, vitamin B6 and thiamin. Many folks promote tomatoes because of their high lycopene content (look on the back of most ketchup bottles and you'll see something about it). Lycopene is an antioxidant that studies have linked to helping reduce heart disease and cancer risks.

What to Do With Tomatoes

I always have a tough time remembering how many tomatoes are in a pound or how many to use to get a cup chopped. A good rule of thumb: 1 pound of tomatoes equals approximately 2 large or 3 medium tomatoes. A pound of tomatoes will give you around 2 1/2 cups of chopped or 3 cups of sliced tomatoes.

I typically buy grape or cherry tomatoes by the pint to dip in hummus or slice and toss on a salad. These tomatoes also work well for vegetable skewers or threaded with chicken for delicious kabobs. Gazpacho soup is another household favorite, but make sure to use plum tomatoes (less seeds to worry about).

Have a few extra tomatoes lying around? Try drying them into "tomato leathers" -- it’s similar to the kid-friendly fruit leathers, but made with tomatoes. This National Center for Home Food Preservation website tells you how.

Shopping Tip: Choose tomatoes that are firm, smooth and brightly colored without blemishes and bruises. Tomatoes store best at room temperature for several days; your refrigerator's cold temperature kills the flavor and creates a mealy texture. To ripen up unripe tomatoes, place them in a paper bag, punch a few small holes in it and drop in an apple. Let it sit for several days and the ethylene gas emitted from the apple helps ripen the tomato.

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