Tomatoes are a berry native to South America, first cultivated in Mexico, and brought to the rest of the world by Spaniards in the 1500s. They come in a mind-boggling array of shapes, sizes and colors. There are more varieties of tomato than you could ever hope to grow in your backyard garden, and their diversity is celebrated in the kitchen as well, where they can be used in anything from soups and sauces to salsas and salads.

If you find yourself buying just the regular old beefsteak tomatoes to slice up in sandwiches, or cherry tomatoes for dipping with ranch dressing, then prepare yourself for a whole new world of flavor and possibility every summer and fall growing season!

Not only is there a lot of diversity in how you can prepare tomatoes in recipes, but there is also diversity in how tomatoes help your overall health. They’re known to fight cancer by knocking out free radicals, to help with lowering blood pressure thanks to their potassium content, and even to help improve blood sugar levels for type 1 and type 2 diabetics.

A cup of tomato slices is only 32 calories, yet offers 32 percent of the daily vitamin C, not to mention sizable doses of vitamin K and E, potassium, B vitamins and even a little bit of fiber and protein. Their phytonutrient content is astounding, providing antioxidants help to repair damage to cells. Tomatoes are known for reducing the risk of heart disease both through this boost of antioxidants, and through repairing damaged fat cells and regulating fat in the bloodstream (as in, lower levels of bad cholesterol). Damaged fats in the cells lining the bloodstream or carried in the bloodstream can trigger the body’s immune response or lead to inflammation, which can then lead to the slow blocking of blood vessels. So when you look at the bright red of a tomato, remember all it does for your heart and circulatory system.

Lycopene is one of the reasons why tomatoes are famous for being a particularly healthy produce option. Research has even uncovered an important connection between lycopene, its antioxidant properties, and bone health. The way to get the most lycopene is through cooking tomatoes. This is one of those rare instances where cooking a vegetable for a long time will actually increase its nutrient benefits. The longer you simmer a sauce or soup, the better. Researchers at Cornell showed that though tomatoes lose vitamin C content, they get a substantial boost in other cancer-fighting nutrients. So even in the grocery store, don’t ditch sauces and pastes in favor of raw tomatoes. Instead, embrace them! As long as they come in a BPA-free can or jar, that is. You can also maximize how much lycopene you get from your tomato-centric meal by adding in a little bit of oil or other fat, which helps the intestines more readily absorb the phytonutrient.

You don't have to worry too much about which tomatoes to select to get the most lycopene. World’s Healthiest Foods tells us, “Lycopene is a carotenoid pigment that has long been associated with the deep red color of many tomatoes. A small preliminary study on healthy men and women has shown that the lycopene from orange- and tangerine-colored tomatoes may actually be better absorbed than the lycopene from red tomatoes. That's because the lycopene in deep red tomatoes is mostly trans-lycopene, and the lycopene in orange/tangerine tomatoes is mostly tetra-cis-lycopene. In a recent study, this tetra-cis form of lycopene turned out to be more efficiently absorbed by the study participants. While more research is needed in this area, we're encouraged to find that tomatoes may not have to be deep red in order for us to get great lycopene-related benefits.”

Now on to recipes! The following ideas cover the gamut of sweet and savory, raw and cooked, appetizers and main dishes. Use these to get your creative juices flowing on different ways you can add more tomatoes to your diet in delicious ways.

salsa

A salsa made from fresh ingredients is the star of the show at any party. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

Salsas, appetizers and sides

Restaurant-Style Tomato Salsa

You can't throw a party without chips and salsa. It's an unwritten rule. And if you want to impress guests, skip anything sold in a glass jar or plastic tub and go for the real stuff. It takes about 5 minutes to make this flavorful salsa — just toss your fresh ingredients into a food processor and press the pulse button. It is easy, and so delicious!

Peach and Tomato Salsa

If you want to do something more surprising for the salsa appetizer, go for this salsa. Quick and easy to make, it combines sweet and spicy for a late summer treat.

Tomato Watermelon Salad

They might sound strange together, but the combination of tomato and watermelon is nothing short of dreamy. The textures and different sweetnesses compliment each other. Throw in a little bit of onion, cilantro, pepper and cheese and you're set.

Fried Green Tomatoes

This classic side dish is one you can easily make yourself. You just need a couple basic ingredients like bread crumbs and of course green tomatoes, and you have a delicious fried treat in a matter of minutes.

Oven-Dried Grape Tomato and Basil Hummus

Dried tomatoes offer a concentrated sweetly savory flavor, and blending them into a hummus is an excellent way to celebrate them. This delicious recipe can be made in just a couple minutes with a blender or food processor.

Roasted Tomatoes with Garlic and Rosemary

Roasted tomatoes are so yum, and they are a lot easier to make than you might think. Just four ingredients, a parchment-lined baking sheet, and an oven at 200 degrees and you're all set!

How to make your own oven-dried grape tomatoes

Here is another variation on oven-dried tomatoes that uses a slightly different technique. It's a great way to preserve the last of the summer's tomato harvest!

roasted tomatoes

Roasting tomatoes is a lot easier than you might suspect. And the flavor is out of this world! (Photo: Jerry James Stone)

Soups

Roasted Tomato Bisque

This is not just your average tomato soup. If you love tomato soup, then this recipe is ambrosia, with freshly roasted tomatoes, garlic and onion, olive oil and spices, and of course, a pour of cream.

Pureed Tomato, Eggplant and Yellow Bell Pepper Soup

To take tomato soup up a notch, add in these extra ingredients. You get a bit more of a hearty flavor, but with all the creamy goodness of your traditional tomato soup.

Indian-Spiced Tomato Soup

Add some flare to tomato soup by stirring in carrots, celery and lentils along with cumin, turmeric, and a couple other spices. It turns out a bit more like a tomato stew, with a complex, rich flavor. A bit of naan on the side wouldn't go amiss!

Tomato Bread Soup

A traditional soup for lean times, this recipe is hearty, filling, and seems a lot more fancy than it really is. Stale bread cubes — er, let's call them croutons — provide an extra dose of comfort and goodness.

stuffed tomatoes

Tomatoes can make an amazing stand-alone main dish when stuffed with garden-fresh herbs, bread crumbs and olives. (Photo: Enrique Gili)

Main courses:

Garden Fresh Pasta Sauce

Every cook should have a go-to pasta sauce recipe, and this one is a real winner. Very simple and to the point, but bursting with that savory goodness that only tomato sauce can boast. It takes about 10 minutes to prep, and 30 minutes to simmer, so it's not a sauce you have to spend all day watching as it bubbles on the stovetop.

Herb Stuffed Tomatoes

We stuff zucchinis, eggplants, bell peppers ... so why not tomatoes? They make a delicate shell holding in the flavorful filling, and they create a beautifully colorful main dish.

Smoky Lentils with Tomato

Two superfoods, tomatoes and lentils, combine to make a super hearty and super healthy meal that tastes super. You can have it for supper. A super supper. Not only is it good for you but the spices, including cumin, cinnamon and black mustard seeds, make this anything but boring.

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Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.