Pomegranates have long been one of the world's most revered fruits. The Bible is littered with references to the red orb, the image of which decorates the temple of Solomon and the robes of priests. An Old World staple, the fruit is gaining popularity in the New World as well. Canada, Mexico and emerging markets of South America are biting into California's export market. Once you get the hang of eating and cooking with them, it's easy to see why.
"Pomegranate" combines the Latin words for "apple" and "seeded." Botanically, the seeded apple isn't a close relative to the apple, but they have some things in common. Both are ripe in autumn—pomegranate season runs from late August until January—and both have long storage lives beyond their fresh seasons. Both fruits have been suggested as being the forbidden one that tempted Eve, though most biblical scholars lean toward the pomegranate. Both rosy-hued fruits have a reputation for keeping the doctor away, though pomegranates are more nutritious.
Another fruit historically linked to the pomegranate is the grape. They co-star in several biblical verses, and can function similarly at the dining table. Pomegranate flavor has a wine-like quality. Chefs sprinkle the bright seeds atop their finished dishes, knowing that the mastication of a single ruby nugget with your mouthful of food is like a sip of wine as you chew. Pomegranate seeds create fireworks when eaten with rich foods, like stuffed pork loin or mushroom linguini.
Recent medical research has shown that, in addition to the fruit's well-known antioxidant and vitamin constituents, it also contains anti-cancer compounds that show promise in killing skin, liver, colon and prostate tumor cells. Not surprisingly, there is interest in using some of these compounds in chemotherapy agents.
Meanwhile, tainted Turkish pomegranate seeds in a frozen antioxidant blend sold at Costco, were recently identified as the source of a hepatitis A outbreak that has sickened 162 people since June. Eating pomegranates whole helps avoid this danger, as the peel protects the fruit from any contamination the supply chain might impart.
Many of the pomegranate's healthful elements reside in the seeds, skin and the aril, the yellow membrane that crisscrosses the fruit. So while juice might be a sweeter, user-friendly way to ingest pomegranate, you might only be getting some of the benefits. But if you tear the skin off and dive mouth-first into the fruit like you would an apple, you'll get a mix of pulp, seeds and aril. It's a bit bitter and crunchy, but the sweet, penetrating flavor of the juice makes these bites pleasurable nonetheless, with more complexity than a sip of juice. If you're really into the bitter components, it's possible to purchase plain pomegranate arils—or even arils covered in milk chocolate.
Fresh pomegranate juice can be made by peeling the fruit, leaving as much of the inner peel and aril as possible, and putting the naked pomegranate innards in the blender with a little water. Blend it to a slurry, and leave it overnight, refrigerated. Filter it the next morning. The result is a little more bitter than store-bought juice, but more complex, and is a delicious and refreshing way to start the day.
When selecting pomegranates, look for firm fruits with hard, rounded skins. Avoid super-sized fruits; like wine grapes, pomegranates cultivated for size produce a more watery fruit, with less terroir. Those with dark red skin tend to contain seeds with darker red pulp.
If you find a good batch, consider acquiring some for long-term storage. Wrap them in paper towels and store in a paper bag at the bottom of the fridge where there isn't much activity. Like bottles of wine, the less they're disturbed, the better they're preserved.
Many recipes pair pomegranate with walnuts. Historically, they're grown in the same regions. And culinarily, the flavors complement each other beautifully. The penetrating acidic sweetness of pomegranate is a perfect contrast to the astringent, oily flavor of walnut.
Perhaps the most famous pairing of pomegranates and walnuts is fesenjan, a chicken or lamb stew made with ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses. Fesenjan can be found throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, including Georgia, Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Pomegranate molasses can be found wherever Middle Eastern ingredients are sold. To make the fesenjan, you'll need the following:
1 lb chicken or lamb, cut into chunks of roughly an inch, with chicken skin removed.
1 C. of walnuts
4 tbsp. pomegranate molasses
1 C. chicken stock
1 large onion, chopped
Olive oil for the pan
7 or so cardamom pods, cracked
A pinch each of nutmeg and cinnamon
Juice from one lemon
Salt and pepper
Tbsp. sugar (optional)
Pomegranate seeds for garnish
To start, brown the meat in a pan with oil. In a separate pan, without oil, lightly toast the walnuts. When they cool, grind the nuts into a paste.
After the meat has browned, add the onions and fry until translucent. Add walnut paste, pomegranate molasses, chicken stock and enough water to submerge everything. Reduce heat to simmer and add the spices.
Simmer on low heat, adding water as necessary to keep the meat covered. After an hour, add the lemon juice and season to taste with salt, pepper and sugar.
As the meat approaches falling-apart tender, stop adding water and allow the sauce to thicken, stirring often to prevent burning. When the sauce is thick as melted ice cream, remove from heat and serve fesenjan with rice, garnished with fresh pomegranate seeds.