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After several years of waiting until mid-summer for tomato season to kick in locally, we're off to an early start this year. We've had local tomatoes since early June, not a lot, but they are more every week.

It's just about time for the year's first BLT.

I think it is time to revisit tomato basics, too, so that we can indulge in one of summer's finest foods with confidence that we're taking as good care of it in the kitchen as our farmers do in the field.

When it comes to varieties, there are thousands to choose from when you are planting. At the market, we have several dozen options, almost all of which are good. Some are best for slicing, some for salsa, others for soup and sauce.

A few, like the Sungold cherry tomato, are best just popped in your mouth and savored. They are like garden candy, sweet and irresistible.

Once you get tomatoes home, you should store them at room temperature and not — let me repeat that, not — in the refrigerator. Most tomatoes begins to turn mealy when held at temperatures below 58 degrees.

Don't pile them one on top of the other, either, lest you hasten spoilage. For the best results, use a flat platter, turn them stem ends down, leave a bit of space around each one and set them away from sunlight. Still, you'll need to use them within a couple of days, as they have been harvested ripe, ready to eat.

If you find yourself with more tomatoes than you can eat before they spoil, you have a couple of options. It is easiest just to chop them, put them in a bowl and season with a little salt. This adds a couple of days to their life and you can finish by turning them into salsa, sauce or soup when you've got the time. If you're really overwhelmed, simply freeze them whole and deal with them when you have a chance.

One of the more controversial aspects of tomatoes is how to peel them. I'm always surprised to see chefs recommend dunking them in boiling water, but I hear it over and over and see it in cookbooks, too. This technique will certainly get the skin off but it also cooks the first 1/8 to ? inch of flesh and it dilutes the flavor. I do not recommend it.

There are two good ways to peel local in-season tomatoes. Some varieties, picked at their exact moment of perfection, are so easy to peel that all you need to do is tug at the skin and off it comes.

When the skin doesn't cooperate in this way, don't worry. Just turn your stove's burner on high, spear a tomato through its stem end and rotate it in the flame or very close to the heat. You will likely hear the skin snap as you turn the tomato. It should take under a minute to sear the skin of a medium tomato.

Set the tomato aside, move on to the next one and continue until all have been seared. To peel them, start with the first one you seared, as it should be cool enough to handle. Use a small paring knife to cut out the stem core and then use your fingernails to tug at the skin, which should come off evenly. Every now and then you meet a stubborn patch, which can be cut with a sharp knife.

With this technique, the flavors are not diluted and you end up with perfect raw tomatoes without skin. They can then be sliced, chopped or minced, depending on your plans for them.

Another area of controversy is how to cut tomatoes. For slices, you should always cut them through their equators, not through their poles. This opens the seed pockets uniformly, making it easy to remove the seeds, if that is your plan, and to layer the tomatoes on a sandwich or with sliced mozzarella for a salad.

The only time to cut tomatoes through their poles is when you want wedges, not slices.

Tomatoes should not go into a blender or food processor, as it makes them foamy. If you want pureed tomatoes, you can simply peel and chop them and then pass them through a hand-cranked food mill, which does not incorporate air as the electric appliances do.

Typically, I make tomato puree by hand. First I peel the tomatoes, slice them in half and squeeze the seeds and gel into a strainer set over a deep bowl. I give the gel a stir and let it drain while I use a very sharp knife to mince the tomatoes as finely as possible. After discarding the seeds, I return the strainer to the bowl, add the minced tomatoes and all their juices along with a teaspoon of salt and give it a good stir. I let it drain for 20 or so minutes, stirring it every now and until it is fairly dry. What remains in the strainer is the tomato puree.

What has dripped into the bowl is the most delicious tomato juice ever. Sometimes I simply drink it on the spot but now and then I chill it and make a Bloody Mary with good vodka, a bit of lemon juice, a bit of salt and pepper and a dash of hot sauce. I don't overload it with seasonings as I want the pristine flavor of the tomatoes to take center stage.

For tomato recipes , including Fresh Tomato Pie, from the Seasonal Pantry archives, visit "Eat This Now" at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

These recipes are among my favorite ways to enjoy the first tomatoes of the season.

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Pan tomate (tomato bread) is common throughout northern Spain. Casual restaurants often have the tomatoes and garlic already on plates on the table and, after a customer orders, the bread arrives. This makes a great breakfast, a yummy lunch or afternoon snack and a great way to start a summer dinner. Best thing to drink alongside? Sparkling wine or dry hard cider.

<b>Pan Tomate</b>

Serves 1, easily doubled or tripled

<i>2 pieces of hearth bread, preferably sourdough, toasted or grilled

1 garlic clove, cut in half crosswise

1 small to medium ripe tomato, cut in half

Extra virgin olive oil

Maldon Salt Flakes or kosher salt</i>

Set the bread on a plate and rub one slice with one of the pieces or garlic, pressing to release the garlic's juices. Rub one half of the tomato into the bread, pressing firmly so that the flesh and juice of the tomato is released into the bread.

Repeat with the second slice of bread.

Drizzle olive oil over the bread, sprinkle with salt and enjoy.

****

This salad of fresh tomatoes and fresh mozzarella is served year round but it is at its best when tomatoes are in season locally.

<b>Classic Insalata Caprese</b>

Serves 3 to 4

<i>6 to 8 ounces fresh mozzarella, well chilled, drained and sliced 3/8-inch thick

3 to 4 medium ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into ?-inch thick slices

2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced

Kosher salt or Maldon Salt Flakes

? cup best-quality extra virgin olive oil

6 to 8 fresh basil leaves

Basil flowers, optional

Black pepper in a mill</i>

Arrange the mozzarella and tomatoes on a medium platter. Scatter the garlic on top, season with salt and drizzle with olive oil.

Working quickly, stack the basil leaves and slice them very thin. Scatter over the tomatoes and cheese.

If using basil flowers, strip them from their stem and scatter over the salad.

Season with a little more salt, add several turns of black pepper and serve.

<i>Michele Anna Jordan has written 17 books to date, including "Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings." You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. Email Jordan at michele@saladdresser.com.</i>