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What to do with all those peak summer tomatoes, from tiny cherries to giant heirlooms

What to do with all those peak summer tomatoes, from tiny cherries to giant heirlooms. Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post. Food styling by The Washington Post's Amanda Soto.

Now is the time for tomatoes, friends. These are the summer days when you gawk at the rainbow of sizes and colors available and wonder which type you should buy for what dish.

"There's nothing better than a perfectly ripe tomato, no matter what it is," says Rich Landau, the chef and owner with his wife Kate Jacoby of plant-based restaurants Vedge, V Street and Wiz Kid in Philadelphia, and the new Fancy Radish in Washington. "Worry less about which variety you're getting," he advises, and "buy the best tomato you can, whatever it is."

Rob Weland, chef-owner of Washington's Garrison, feels similarly. "I think the best advice is always buy a large variety and have fun with them," he says. "Don't be afraid of crazy shapes and crazy colors."

Whether you came home with a mixed basket of beauties or just want to know how to use your favorite type of tomato, we've got helpful ideas to guide you, based on a few broad categories.

Small (grape, cherry, currant)

"You basically have to do nothing to them," Weland says of the bite-sized tomatoes that many of us pop like candy. The best uses are fresh, as on an open-faced toast or in a salad.

Landau recommends the small tomatoes as in a tabbouleh or other grain salad, something you might put together on a Sunday along with other crunchy vegetables, such as cucumber, and eat throughout the rest of the week. At Vedge, they're split in half and roasted as a garnish for an eggplant dish. Landau says to make sure you don't dry them out until they turn leathery.

Another attractive option is to find clusters of small varieties still on the vine. Landau likes to sear them quickly in a very hot cast-iron skillet with some oil and salt so that one side is charred while the inside remains raw.

You could even consider a gratin. Small tomatoes can make a lovely pasta sauce, too.

Plum or Roma

These oval-shaped tomatoes have less liquid and a higher proportion of flesh. Weland finds that they "just grow a little more intense."

For those reasons, these varieties are favorites for tomato sauce or tomato paste. It's what Landau uses for his tomato sauce. He likes them to "melt into kind of a fondue" in a saucepan with olive oil, garlic, onions/shallots, dried oregano, salt and pepper, before adding water and additional seasoning to cook into a sauce. Don't forget to stir in fresh herbs at the end.

Weland suggests cooking down the tomatoes to form a quick tomato paste that can be stored in small amounts in the freezer.

Another ideal use for plum or Roma tomatoes is gazpacho. You get the benefit of strong flavor without a lot of water.

Large non-heirloom (especially beefsteak and other "slicing" varieties)

This is probably the type you think of when you imagine a big, juicy BLT. "I don't like to manipulate them very much," Weland says. He most enjoys eating them warm off the vine (if only!), with extra-virgin olive oil and salt. Or serve them with some grilled bread, with or without a milky burrata or mozzarella.

These more firm-textured varieties are also ideal for making your own salsa. Or hollow them out, stuff and roast. If the tomato is really excellent, you can serve the stuffed tomato raw, too.

Bigger tomatoes can also be sliced thick and baked with herbs and olive oil.

Heirloom

This year I've seen some absolutely stunning heirloom cherry and grape tomatoes. If you come across these, see my recommendations above. But what to do with those bigger heirlooms? You know the type - big, wrinkly and utterly unique.

Weland says they're especially suited to a simple salad with shaved red onions, garlic, red wine vinegar and good cheese.

Landau's favorite varieties are Cherokee Purple and Green Zebra. One way Landau likes to treat heirlooms is by cutting and salting them, which gets you dense, flavorful slices and an equally delicious "tomato water" released by the fruit that you can use in gazpacho, salad dressing or as a soak for thinly sliced zucchini. You can also thinly slice heirloom tomatoes for a kind of carpaccio, using several different colors laid on a plate and covered with chopped chives, shallot, oil, salt and sherry vinegar. Let it rest for a bit to allow it all to meld. Even easier: Toss chopped tomatoes with pasta, olive oil and salt for a quintessential summer dish.

Another possibility Landau would like to see catch on is sauce vierge, a raw or minimally cooked tomato sauce that could almost be described as a French salsa. Landau includes capers, basil and olive oil in his version, which he says works well on grilled tofu or mushrooms.

The best place to sample all these wonderful tomatoes is, of course, the farmers market. One money-saving trick is to look for or ask about seconds, which have some sort of physical defect that prevent them from being put out with the regular display. Vendors may offer them at a discount, and they're great when you want a large quantity of tomatoes where appearance won't matter, in a sauce, for example. Or maybe you don't care if your salad tomato is a bit dinged up or funky-looking.

Regardless of appearance, the flavor will be great. With any great-tasting tomato, though, it's best not to overdo a dish and bury the star ingredient. "It's got so much to say, so why not let it speak for itself?" Landau says.

Weland, an avid gardener who has long grown some of his own produce for his restaurants, emphasizes a nugget of family tomato wisdom. "I'd laugh at my grandparents," he said. "They'd say you can taste the sunshine, but it's true."

This article was written by Becky Krystal, a reporter for The Washington Post.