11/03/2011 05:01 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2012

Cooked Tomatoes

Sometimes, even in-season tomatoes need a little help. By "help," I mean "heat."

Cooking fresh tomatoes brings out their best qualities -- juiciness, sweetness, tenderness -- and minimizes graininess. Cooking is an absolute must for winter tomatoes -- a January Roma cannot possibly taste good raw, no matter where it's from or how it's been grown -- but all but the best summer tomatoes can benefit from being cooked. (The best can't be improved upon.)

The trick is to keep the heat high and the cooking time short -- slow, low-heat cooking is ideal for tomato sauce, but it robs fresh tomatoes of their bright flavor and succulent texture.

Often, it's worth it to remove the seeds from tomatoes before cooking, especially if there are lots of them; the pulpy, gelatinous liquid in which the seeds are suspended can get a little messy during cooking. Luckily, seeding is easy: Cut the tomato in half horizontally (around the equator) and shake and squeeze out the seeds, using your fingers or a spoon to help get the job done if necessary. If you want to keep some of the tomato's flavorful juice to use during cooking, seed it over a strainer set over the bowl.

I rarely bother to peel tomatoes before I cook them, but occasionally it's a good idea -- pieces of tomato skin detach from the flesh and curl up when cooked, which bothers some people. Sometimes it's easy to remove tomato skin after cooking (as with the grilled tomato recipe here), but other times (like if you're chopping tomatoes finely to make tomato sauce or tomato soup) it makes more sense to peel them ahead of time: Bring a large pot of water to a boil and fill a large bowl with ice water. Cut a small "X" into the end of the tomato opposite the core, drop each tomato into the boiling water, and leave it there for just 10 to 30 seconds. (The idea is to apply enough heat to loosen the skin, not to cook the tomato -- the flesh should remain raw.) Fish the tomatoes out with a slotted spoon, transfer to the ice water to cool them down, then peel with your fingers or a paring knife -- the skin should come off easily.

My favorite ways to cook ripe tomatoes, however, requires virtually no prep -- just slicing (thickly, not thinly) and brushing with oil. Transfer the slices to a hot grill and let them get lightly charred on both sides. The process takes just a few minutes (once the grill is hot), and the results are spectacular. Sprinkled with pimentón (smoked paprika) and garnished with sherry vinegar, almonds, and parsley, these tomatoes take on a Spanish character, but you can change up the flavor profile of grilled tomatoes as you like: Even if you season them with just salt, pepper, and some chopped fresh herbs, they'll be delicious. (You can also broil them instead of grilling, though the results are not quite as good.)

The other two cooked-tomato recipes here are more substantial main dishes. The first is a homemade fresh-tomato pizza that's perfect for summer, because it doesn't require turning the oven on. Instead, you fry rounds of dough in a skillet filmed with olive oil, which makes the crust deeply golden and crispy. The tomatoes are only briefly cooked on top of the crust -- just long enough to heat them through and soften them. The other recipe combines lean white fish and tomatoes in foil packages, which are then transferred to the oven and cooked just long enough for the fish to steam in the liquid of the tomatoes. The results are light, subtle, very juicy and perfect served with good bread and a green salad.


Grilled or Broiled Tomatoes, Spanish Style

Fish Baked in Foil with Tomatoes

Fresh Tomato Pan Pizza