There's no doubt that the best way to eat a tomato is directly off the vine, warm and juicy. Bring a slice of great bread, sea salt and a little extra-virgin olive oil with you. Drizzle the bread with olive oil, cut a thick slice of tomato and slide it onto the bread. A crunch of salt and you're on your way to tomato nirvana.

May I suggest another path?

Roast your tomatoes. This is food at its simplest and most divine. Roasting intensifies the already rich flavor of tomatoes (even poor ones) into something extraordinary.

Tomatoes are culinary catalysts. Along with tart cherries, tomatoes have the ability to enhance other foods in a dish without stealing the stage. Perhaps that's why they are so universally beloved.

Cookbook author Lynne Rosseto Kasper divides tomatoes into three categories according to taste: the mellow, balanced tomato, rich and round-flavored like the ubiquitous Beefsteak or many heirlooms; the brash tomato with lots of sugar and an acid kick that gives contrast and complexity to varieties like Red Currant and Early Cascade; and the sweet tomato with the same level of acidity as other tomatoes, but more sugar, like the white, orange and yellow varieties.

Roasting, like old age, intensifies these qualities.

If you don't grow your own, our abundance of farmers markets and roadside stands are the best place to find domestic and heirloom varieties. My friend Jenny Tutlis, owner of Meadowlark Farms, called heirloom tomatoes (her favorites), "fragile and futsy, but full of flavor." She said they are rich with cracks and character, hard to grow, but are "beyond beautiful" with their flashy colors and flavor.

Now is the time to roast a bushel of tomatoes or just get out in the garden and eat them sun-drenched and raw.

Roasted Tomatoes

Don't store your precious gems in the refrigerator — leave 'em out. Cold kills their flavor. Roasting tomatoes preserves their summer goodness. Roast them plain or with garlic and herbs, cool and freeze in freezer baggies. For a fast winter meal with the heavenly taste of summer, pull out a bag and heat them to instant tomato sauce or soup.

Tomatoes, washed and cored

Olive oil

Kosher salt

Optional Ingredients

Whole cloves garlic, peeled

Sprigs of fresh herbs — oregano, rosemary, thyme

Preheat oven to 450°. Slice tomatoes into ⅓- to ½-inch thick rounds. (To roast cherry tomatoes, roll whole tomatoes in olive oil and roast in one layer.)

Oil a large non-aluminum pan. Lay tomato slices into oil and flip to oil second side. Wedge slices into pan in one layer. Sprinkle tomatoes lightly with salt.

If you will use garlic or herbs: Wash and dry them, peel garlic and strip herbs from stems. Sprinkle into oil and lay tomatoes on top.

Roast tomatoes in the oven till brown around the edges, about 45 minutes.

*To preserve roasted tomatoes in whole, round discs for bruschetta, start with thick, dense heirloom types sliced thickly. Roast and cool tomatoes in pan. Gently transfer them to clean, oiled parchment, wax or freezer paper-covered pan — stack the tomato discs in layers with paper in between. Freeze until solid and transfer to zipper baggies. To thaw: pull out discs as you need them and thaw on a plate.

For a stunningly simple but tasty bruschetta:

Heat an outdoor or stovetop grill. Brush slices of Stonehouse ciabatta bread with olive oil. Grill bread on both sides until golden and grill-marked. Rub bread with a cut clove of garlic and top with a roasted tomato. Garnish with Italian parsley leaves.

Chef-Educator Nancy Krcek Allen graduated from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. She has worked in restaurants, catered, taught, cooked privately, written about food and owned the restaurant/cooking school, City Kitchen. She currently teaches cooking at Chateau Chantal and Northwestern Michigan College, and is working on a culinary textbook for Prentice Hall on global cuisines.

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