MOST OF us are familiar with one kind of tomato soup, and it comes in read and white can. That kind is fine for February when fresh tomatoes are better off in a game of raquetball than on the table.

But now, when garden tomatoes are so succulent and full of flavor, it's time to shun the can opener for the summery taste of homemade tomato soup. When made with the ripest tomatoes of the season, so juicy they're almost splitting their skins, fresh tomato soup is a true taste of the garden, a distant relative indeed to its cousin in the cupboard.

Deciding which kind of homemade tomato soup to make can have the cook in a stew. There are "hot" ones, fiery with curry powder and peppers and delicious served icy cold. There are cool, Middle-Eastern-style tomato soups, made with yogurt and mint, and cold, uncooked gazpachos, more salad than soup.

There are clear versions, like George Lang's "white" tomato soup. To make it, he simmers very ripe, fresh tomatoes with strong chicken broth, then strains out the pulp. And there are hefty, chunky tomato soups, such as the early American version made with 2 1/2 pounds of fresh tomatoes, a pound of beef stew meat, plus celery and carrots.

There are simple tomato soups, so plain and unadulterated they are believed to have restorative powers -- for livers, at least. Elizabeth David says her "light" tomato soup is the kind the French like to eat when taking a "cure" to detoxify their livers and give their over-buttered bodies a rest. The soup is made with pure'ed, cooked tomatoes, a little onion, hot milk and not a speck of fat.

The most popular version of fresh tomato soup, however, is not for lagging livers. It is a cream of tomato, brimming with buttery calories. It may be served cold or hot, thick or thin, seasoned and garnished in a hundred ways.

There are, in fact, only two unvarying ingredients in fresh cream of tomato soup, and those are fresh, ripe tomatoes and cream. From there, cooks disagree.

Many start with butter or olive oil, or a combination of the two, and vegetables to be saute'ed before the fresh tomatoes are added. Onions and garlic predominate, but carrots, celery, potatoes and leeks are also commonly added, and some cooks are very choosy about which goes into the pot. Elizabeth David simply does not make her cream of tomato and potato if leeks are not to be had.

The tomatoes are then added and simmered until tender, with or without liquid. Chicken stock is favored, though James Beard's mother's "standard cream of tomato" calls for beef or veal stock, and Perla Meyers uses water. Herbs and spices may be swirled in, too, and almost anything goes: parsley, dill, thyme, basil, marjoram, savory, chervil, chives, bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger. And more (alone, or in sensible groupings, of course).

The mixture may then be pure'ed, though some country-style fresh tomato soups (like the kind my great-grandmother made in her farm kitchen) have chunks of tomato floating in a sea of cream. Satiny soup lovers are offended by this notion, as well as by the tiniest seed, and push their simmered tomatoes through a sieve or a food mill.

Before or after the cream is added (heavy, light or a combination), some cooks add a thickener. Jacques Pepin sprinkles a little flour over the saute'ed onion, Roger Verge' adds egg yolks. At Monticello, Martha Jefferson (daughter of Thomas) stirred in mashed crackers. Other cooks use cornstarch, ground rice, even tapioca.

Garnishes for finished fresh tomato soup, with or without cream, range from high-falutin' (cre me frai che, lightly salted whipping cream, chopped watercress, a dollop of caviar) to down-home (a spoonful of mayo, a fistful of oyster crackers). But whether it's served as a fancy first course, or simply for Saturday's lunch, fresh tomato soup is one of summer's special treats.

All of which is not to say that canned tomato soup is bad.

"When I am alone, and perhaps a little low," M.F.K. Fisher has written, "it is good to heat a can of cream of tomato and some milk or water, pour them into a warmed bowl with a sprinkle of cinnamon in it and go to bed with it."

But just think how much better she'd feel with a bowl of the freshly made stuff.

Of the three fresh tomato soups that follow, only the first is made with cream. It's pale in color, flecked with parsley and fresh thyme, and so thick and rich that some may prefer it thinned with a little milk or chicken broth. Sweet and spicy tomato soup is chunky, aromatic and especially refreshing served cold with a dollop of sour cream. The parmesan-topped soup is basically fresh tomato with pesto ingredients (basil, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil) -- a fine way to use some of this year's crop of fresh basil.

FRESH CREAM OF TOMATO SOUP WITH THYME (5 to 6 servings)

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped

2 medium carrots, coarsely chopped

4 to 5 large, very ripe tomatoes, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

2 3-inch sprigs fresh thyme (or 1/4 teaspoon)

1 bay leaf

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 cup heavy cream

Garlic croutons

In a large saucepan, heat butter with olive oil. Add onion and carrots and saute' until tender, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Bring to boil, lower heat and simmer, covered, until tomatoes are tender, about 12 to 15 minutes.

Remove from heat and pure'e in blender or food processor. Put through a food mill or push through a sieve (to remove seeds), and return to saucepan.

Add cream and heat gently before serving. Or chill and serve cold. Garnish with garlic croutons.

Note: To make garlic croutons, put 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet and add 1/2 clove garlic, minced. Saute' over low heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Add 3 to 4 slices French or Italian bread that have been cut into 1/2-inch cubes. Saute' over low heat, stirring, for 4 to 5 minutes, until lightly browned.

SWEET AND SPICY TOMATO SOUP (6 servings)

This soup tastes best served cold or at room temperature.

5 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium stalks celery, coarsely chopped

1 small onion, coarsely chopped

1 medium green pepper, coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon minced, seeded hot pepper

1 large clove garlic, minced

4 to 5 large, very ripe tomatoes, peeled, cored, and cut into large chunks

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon allspice

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Sour cream

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan. Add celery, onion, peppers and garlic and saute' over low heat, stirring frequently, until vegetables are tender but not mushy, 8 to 10 minutes.

Add tomatoes, brown sugar, spices, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, just until tomato chunks are tender (they should not fall apart), about 10 minutes.

Serve garnished with generous dollops of sour cream.

FRESH TOMATO SOUP WITH BASIL AND GARLIC (3 to 4 servings)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large clove garlic, minced

4 to 5 large, very ripe tomatoes, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, fairly well packed

2 tablespoons pine nuts

Freshly grated parmesan cheese

In a large saucepan, heat olive oil briefly. Add garlic and saute' for a few minutes, stirring.

Add tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes are tender, 12 to 15 minutes.

Remove from heat and pour into blender jar or food processor bowl. Add basil leaves and pine nuts; pure'e. Put through a food mill or push through a sieve (to remove seeds), and return to saucepan. Heat gently. Serve hot, sprinkled generously with parmesan.