THERE'S nothing in this world like a vine-ripened tomato. They are delicious, succulent, and beautiful to look at - and right now, there are bushels of them.
Along with homegrown tomatoes, plenty of zucchini and other kinds of squash are also ready to be picked. What this means, of course, is that it's time to get creative with the fall harvest.
``Tomatoes! 365 Healthy Recipes for Year-Round Enjoyment'' edited by Constance Oxley (Garden Way, 1991), and ``Grilling from the Garden: Vegetarian Dishes for the Outdoor Cook'' by Diana Shaw (Harmony Books, 112 pp., $11) provide imaginative uses for the proverbial abundance of tomatoes and zucchini at this time of year.
Ms. Oxley culled the best tomato recipes from a collection of cookbooks by Storey Publications. Many of them require fresh produce, but some use fresh-frozen tomatoes, sauce, or even dried tomatoes.
The book covers a lot of ground - traditional fare, spicy exotic dishes, and comfort food (like a cream of tomato soup). Her own favorite harvest dish is a fresh gazpacho soup made with six large ripe tomatoes, which she makes in massive amounts to give to friends.
She also recommends freezing tomatoes whole: ``Just pop them in a freezer bag, it's the easiest thing to do with them. Then you can use them in soups and stews; you don't even have to thaw them. Or you can puree them in the blender or food processor for bread, sauce, whatever.'' Pureed tomatoes give bread a beautiful blush and can be added to a variety of recipes, she points out.
Though many of the recipes call for dried herbs, Oxley prefers them fresh. She says her tomato- zucchini tart is even tastier with fresh rather than dried basil and oregano. Fresh herbs add texture and color as well as a more distinct and livelier flavor, she says.
This tart combines a wonderful creamy potato crust with the piquant flavor of barely cooked tomatoes, the subtle nip of tender-crisp zucchini, and the velvety texture and taste of melted Swiss cheese - all layered into the pan.
Oxley's zucchini moussaka is a delightful twist to a traditional eggplant dish. Ground lamb spiced with cinnamon and layered with cheese and zucchini makes a hearty, unusual dish for adventurous diners.
Large quantities of tomatoes are used in the relishes Oxley offers in her book. She also has a recipe for those unripe tomatoes endangered by imminent frost: fried green tomatoes.
Says Oxley: ``The best thing to do is to use the tomatoes just beginning to turn yellow. If they are too green they will be too bitter.''
She prefers the most basic of the variations - plain old bread crumbs flavored with basil and oregano. ``I use them as an appetizer, and they are very tangy and tart.... Some people find them too tart and use parmesan cheese to calm down the taste.''
Diana Shaw's approach to garden abundance is original and delicious. ``Grilling completely changes the character of the vegetables,'' she says.
Ms. Shaw bakes all kinds of veggies over her charcoal grill. Their smoky sweet taste is a particularly wonderful flavor at this time of year, she says.
Shaw, who describes herself as a ``part-time vegetarian,'' says: ``Vegetarian cooking is interesting to me because I like to take ideas I get from general cooking and apply them to vegetables. There is so much to be discovered. I really missed the grilled flavor I remembered from family barbecues. And there are a range of vegetarian meals that can be cooked on the grill.''
Is it too late to fire up the grill now that the weather is turning?
``No,'' she says, adamantly. ``Fall vegetables are great grilled. Tomatoes are just happening now. Grilling acorn or butternut squash, or sweet potatoes with autumn seasoning - cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove - is just great. Zucchini is easy to grill, and you can vary the flavor by making a variety of marinades.''
With tomatoes, she says, it's a matter of making a number of recipes at once so you get different flavors. She offers her favorite, a delicious pesto-stuffed tomato dish.
And tomatoes can be grilled (on a fine-grade grill) almost to a sauce and then used on top of a bread-like pizza crust.
One standout dish is her grilled tomato salad. Made with grilled leeks, feta cheese, olives and capers in a light vinegar dressing, it's a Greek salad with a lovely smoky dimension.
Another dish requires smoked mozzarella. If the smoked variety is not available in your local supermarket, you can smoke the cheese by adding mesquite chips soaked in water to the fire just before grilling, she says.