HISTORICALLY speaking, Americans really missed the boat when it came to tomatoes. First, we believed they were poison and refused to eat them. When we discovered they were indeed edible, we weren't really sure what to do with them. So we sent tomato plants to Spain, probably in the early 18th century. The Spanish loved them, quickly making the tomato an integral part of their cuisine. .

A reference to Spanish omelets appears in America's first cookbook, published in 1792; in 1825, one of our most important early cookbooks mentions gazpacho.

Ironically, now that we have grown to understand and respect this glorious American fruit, it has been stripped of its character. The once-great tomato has become a hybrid that is as solid as a billiard ball with the texture of packed cotton. However, some of us on the grass-roots level are proving that machine pickability isn't preferable, and that the "square round," as commercial tomatoes are known, can be replaced by homegrown.

If you have taken the time to find a great tomato--either by searching for a special roadside stand on the way back from the country, or by growing your own, it seems a sin to destroy this wonderful fruit by cooking it down to a tomato sauce. Instead, make a coulis, which, through minimal cooking, preserves the character of the tomato.

On the surface, great tomatoes may appear to have problems: Besides blemishes, they often have cracks in their skin at the blossom end, are somewhat irregular in shape, uneven in color, thin-skinned and bruise easily, so they don't travel well. But underneath it all, they are rich in flavor and are wonderfully sweet tasting. THE CLASSIC

The classic combination for displaying the greatness of a tomato is to peel and slice it (leaving the seeds in), drizzle some good-quality olive oil over the top, and throw some chopped fresh basil on it with a few grinds of freshly ground black pepper and a little coarse salt. While the tomato-basil marriage may not be ready for gastronomic divorce, it has become monotonous over the years. Using the same principle, replace the basil with:

* Equal parts of finely chopped fresh dill and finely chopped fresh parsley or chives

* Equal parts of finely chopped fresh chives, finely chopped fresh parsley (preferably flat-leaf parsley, sometimes called Italian parsley), and finely chopped fresh tarragon

* A combination of herbs, spices and lemon. Turn on a food processor. Drop through the feed tube 2 peeled garlic cloves and a chunk of fresh ginger root about 1 1/2-inches square. Process until very, very finely chopped, scraping down the sides of the bowl two or three times. Add the juice of half a lemon and a large handful of fresh coriander along with 5 or 6 sprigs of parsley. Process, turning on and off quickly, until the herbs are finely chopped.

Use this tomato coulis as a sauce for fettucini, as a topping for steamed fresh vegetables, or with chicken, veal or fish dishes that would normally call for a tomato sauce. The coulis is also wonderful with vegetable mousses and terrines. TOMATO COULIS (Makes about 1 1/2 cups) 10 large ripe tomatoes 3 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped 1/4 cup mixed fresh herbs, all finely chopped* Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Plunge the tomatoes into boiling water for about 10 seconds, then cool under running cold water. Peel, slice in half, remove seeds and cut out the piece of dark skin at the stem and blossom ends. Chop very coarsely. Place the tomatoes and their juices in a measuring cup. There should be about 2 cups. If not, decrease or increase the amount of fat and oil called for in the recipe accordingly.

Place the oil and butter in a large skillet set over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook without browning for about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tomatoes and their juices, increase the heat slightly and cook, shaking the pan back and forth to prevent the sauce from sticking and burning, until most of the water has evaporated and the sauce has become thick without looking like it has cooked itself to death. Some of the textural integrity of the tomato pulp should remain. Remove from heat and stir in the fresh herbs. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

*Note: The herbs should be chosen in relation to how you intend to use the sauce. Basil and parsley are always good. If serving with fish, use dill and parsley; with lamb or chicken, parsley and chives with a little rosemary; with vegetables, perhaps chives and tarragon. You can use dried herbs, but you'll sacrifice a little flavor. Substitute about 1 teaspoon of dried herb for every tablespoon of fresh. BASQUE PIPERADE (4 servings)

This modern Basque dish is good for a late breakfast, a Sunday brunch or a light lunch. 4 tablespoons olive oil 2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped 1 large onion, peeled and coarsely chopped 1 sweet red pepper and 2 sweet green peppers, roasted, peeled and seeded, and cut in large pieces 4 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped Salt and freshly ground black pepper 6 eggs beaten together with 2 tablespoons cold water 1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, well crushed Small bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan. Add the garlic and onion and cook until just barely tender. Add the peppers, tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for a minute or two until most of the liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated. Do not cook so long that the tomatoes become mushy and look pure'ed. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat together the eggs, hot pepper sauce, thyme and parsley. Add a little salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the vegetable mixture and pour the egg mixture over it. Reduce heat slightly and cook as you would scrambled eggs. The slower the cooking, the creamier the piperade will be. When the eggs are soft and curdlike, transfer to plates and serve immediately.

Accompany the piperade with toast or warm french bread and a light-bodied red wine (perhaps chilled in the refrigerator for an hour or so before serving), such as a California gamay beaujolais, or a light French beaujolais. If you'd prefer a white wine, try a modestly priced moselle or just a well-chilled bottle of your favorite liebfraumilch.