Cover Story Plant Life Northwest Living Taste Now & Then

More than decorative, pomegranates add sparkle to an array of dishes

The luscious color and vibrant taste of fresh pomegranates can brighten many a meal.
SEEING RICH red pomegranates on sale at a local supermarket one fall, I bought extra and happily passed them out to co-workers. Then, as the fruit sat on their desks, the color waning and plump contours shrinking, I realized that many people are more accustomed to using pomegranates for decorating than for eating.

Actually, things haven't changed much in the past couple of centuries. It was perhaps in the 19th century that a French writer counseled housewives to crown arrangements of fruit with pomegranates, cut open to reveal dozens of beautiful, shining seeds inside. Granted, the pomegranate is visually compelling. Since its introduction to Europe, the fruit's brilliant color and globe-shaped form have captivated artists and aristocrats alike. Images of the pomegranate have graced many paintings as well as the robes of royalty and clergy. But the real rewards of this fruit lie inside, in the form of those garnet-like seeds — their crunchy centers cradled in soft, translucent flesh. Eating these seeds, crunchy part and all, releases the refreshing, sweet-tart taste that makes pomegranates so right for so many things.

A small bowlful of pomegranate seeds makes an unusual and delectable snack or dessert. The seeds can also be used as a glittering garnish on a range of foods, both sweet and savory. Scatter them on an appetizer of hummus or into a main course of meat stew. Experiment with a salad of lettuce, thinly sliced fennel, fresh orange segments and pomegranate seeds tossed with a simple vinaigrette. For dessert, try them sprinkled on cheesecake, rice pudding, custard, fruit yogurts or ice cream.

This slow-cooked stew of chicken or duck always intrigues diners with its deeply flavorful sauce of walnuts and pomegranate molasses. A classic of Persian cuisine, it is traditionally served during cool autumn months. This version is more tart than the dish you may find in restaurants. Garnish with fresh pomegranate seeds, if available, and serve with plain white rice (preferably Basmati) and a garden salad.
1/2 cup or more olive oil, divided
1 large onion, sliced
1/2 teaspoon turmeric or curry powder
3 cups walnuts (about 1 pound), finely ground
1/2 to 3/4 cup pomegranate molasses
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 cups water
3 pounds chicken, skinned and cut into pieces
2/3 cup lemon juice
2 to 3 tablespoons honey
2 to 3 teaspoons salt
Fresh pomegranate seeds for garnish, if available

1. In a large saucepan, heat half the oil and fry the onions with the turmeric or curry powder until golden brown, stirring frequently.

2. Add the ground walnuts, pomegranate molasses, pepper and water and begin cooking on medium heat.

3. Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a skillet and brown the chicken, turning the pieces occasionally to brown each side. Add the chicken to the saucepan and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is tender and the sauce becomes thick and medium brown in color. This may take an hour or longer.

4. Add the lemon juice, honey and salt and mix well. Adjust seasonings to taste, adding more pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, pepper or honey.

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While using the fruit is easy, getting to the seeds isn't. The pomegranate is not a user-friendly fruit. Extracting the seeds is a tedious process that has to be done by hand. And the juice stains, nearly indelibly. So it's best to begin by wearing an apron and finding a plastic cutting board that can be rinsed easily. Books advise you to score the fruit into quarters lengthwise and break it apart with your hands. The idea is to keep from damaging the seeds. I find it simpler to wash the fruit and quarter it with a sharp knife, accepting that some seeds will be damaged in the process. Then I use my fingers to open the thin, bitter membranes that surround the seeds and collect the seeds into a bowl. Once collected, the seeds can be used fresh, refrigerated for a few days, or frozen for a couple of months. The seeds can also be gathered in cheesecloth and squeezed to extract pomegranate juice. This fresh juice is indeed a luxury. Dilute it if necessary, sweeten lightly and drink it plain, or add it to lemonade or other fruit drinks. Pomegranate juice also makes a terrific sorbet. All these uses of the juice benefit from a splash of fragrant rose water, which is widely available at Middle Eastern specialty stores or shops selling aromatherapy supplies.

In the past, Europeans used pomegranate juice to make grenadine, a sweet, red syrup for flavoring drinks and desserts. Sadly, most grenadine is artificially flavored today. However, the fruit juice is still used in the Middle East to make pomegranate molasses, a dark condiment with a viscous texture and a complex, sour flavor. In the cuisines of Persia and the Republic of Georgia, pomegranate molasses is used to flavor meat, fish and vegetable dishes. The best known of these in the West is fesenjen, a Persian stew of poultry with ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses that is traditionally made during the fall.

Late fall is also when the fruit appears in local markets. Look for pomegranates with a heavy feel and glossy, unblemished skin. The varieties we see are red, but pomegranates can range in color from yellow with pink blush to purplish red. Likewise, we are familiar with tart fruit, but in the Middle East, where a greater variety is grown, the taste varies from tart to sweet. Pomegranates are long-lasting and will keep for a week or more at room temperature and at least a couple of weeks refrigerated.

Like figs, olives and grapes, they are an ancient and evocative fruit. Their numerous seeds (pomegranate means seeded apple in Old French) made them a symbol of fertility and plenty throughout the Old World.

Pomegranates are mentioned in the Bible, in the poetry of Homer and in the plays of Shakespeare. In Greece, the fruit was associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Probably native to Mesopotamia, pomegranates were cultivated in Egypt before the time of Moses. After the exodus, it is said that the Hebrews wandering in the desert yearned for the cooling pomegranates of Egypt. Pomegranates eventually made it east to India and China, probably around the beginning of the Christian era. The fruit was introduced to Europe in early medieval times. In later centuries, Spanish conquistadors brought it to America, where it took hold in the warmer climates of California and the South.

Today, you may see this regal fruit adding flair to holiday decorations — several in a bowl, forming the glowing centerpiece of a dining table, a few fruit artfully placed on a mantelpiece along with pine boughs and cones, or small, dried fruit woven into Christmas wreaths. On these occasions, remember also the simple, sensual pleasure of eating pomegranates.

Andrew Jayasundera is a publications specialist and freelance food writer. Barry Wong is a staff photographer for Pacific Northwest magazine.

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