History and Lore:
Pomegranates are the fruit of a small, shrubby tree, native to the Mediterranean, where it still grows wild. The fruits resemble large, brick red, leather-skinned apples with turret-like crowns. When opened, they reveal a myriad of clear-to-ruby-red, glassy-looking seeds or kernels called arils, compartmentalized and protected between tough white membranes. Pomegranates are sweet, tart, and their strongly pigmented juice can be quite astringent.
Pomegranate’s botanical name is Punica Granatum, with Punica acknowledging its Carthaginian heritage, and Granatum referring to its numerous seeds. It is one of the earliest cultivated fruits and is believed to have been planted sometime between 4,000 and 3,000 BC. Cultivated and appreciated since antiquity, pomegranates have been an inspiration for poets, painters and sculptors as symbols of health, abundance, fertility, prosperity, and rebirth in Chinese, Persian, Roman, Egyptian, Greek and Hebrew lore, and as a symbol of hope in Christian art traditions. Many scholars suggest that it was the pomegranate, not an apple, which Eve offered to Adam in the mythical Garden of Eden.
The word pomegranate comes from the Middle French term pome garnete and literally means “seeded apple”. The French named their hand-tossed explosive a “grenade” after the seed scattering properties of pomegranates, and the soldiers who wielded that lethal fruit were, themselves, called “grenadiers”.
In a more practical and less violent sense, the pomegranate rind is so tannin-rich that it was once used for tanning leather, and the deeply pigmented juice is still used as a natural dye today.
Buying and Storage:
Pomegranates are shipped ripe and ready to eat. While the outer skin should be thin, tough, and unbroken–any external blemishes should not be considered indicative of the interior quality, however. The outside color can vary from pale red-yellow to a deep purple-red. Heavy fruits promise more juice. If the little crown emits puffs of powdery clouds when pressed, the fruit inside will probably be old and dry.
Fresh, unopened pomegranates keep best refrigerated in the vegetable drawer, and should last for a couple of months. Once cracked open, they’ll last up to a week, if stored in a tightly sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator. The seeds, once removed from their protective white membranes, may be frozen for up to one year. Unopened whole pomegranates can adorn a fruit bowl at room temperature (out of direct sunlight) for at least a week. They create a dramatic centerpiece and add a festive touch to any room, as well as being symbols of hope, healing, fertility, and rebirth.
Pomegranates have been found to be the anti-oxidant super power; pomegranate juice supplies one of the highest levels of anti-oxidants to be found in almost any beverage. The importance of this lies in the fact that anti-oxidants act as free radical-neutralizing scavengers in our bodies–a good thing–because free radicals are known to accelerate aging, leading to heart disease and stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and even some cancers. Exposure to pollutants, pesticides, drugs, high-fat diets and fried foods can cause the formation of free radicals, and evidence suggests that pomegranates can help prevent some of the cell and tissue damage that leads to disease.
To open a pomegranate, do not cut straight into the fruit, or you will lose all of the juices. Instead, lightly score the outer skin with a knife, in quarters, from stem to blossom-end, and then hold the fruit in a bowl of water. Gently break open the fruit by hand, and bend back the rind to roll out the seed kernels, or arils, with your fingers. The kernels will sink to the bottom of the bowl, and the membranes will float to the top. Discard the white membrane, which is very bitter, and strain out the water. By doing all of this in a bowl of water, you prevent the seed sacs from squirting open and staining your clothing.
Enjoy the unique sweet-sour taste of these crisp little seeds, on their own merits, or simply sprinkle them to enhance and garnish almost anything–salads, meat or poultry, soups, or desserts. In the Mediterranean, pomegranates’ unique piquant taste makes them as much a part of everyday food as lemon juice is in America. They add texture, spectacular color, bright flavor, and are incredibly high in anti-oxidants, but beware–their juice will stain clothing!
One medium-sized pomegranate will yield about 3/4 cup of seed kernels or 1/2 cup of juice. And what about the teeny tiny little seed inside each ruby kernel? They are a great source of healthy fiber–swallow pomegranate seed kernels whole!
Many years ago, the finest grenadine (the sweet red syrup used in cocktails) was made with the juice of pomegranate seeds. Now, store-bought grenadine is nothing more than red dye #40, corn syrup and other allegedly ‘natural’ flavors. Why not try making your own instead?
Bring 3 cups of pomegranate juice to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally and skimming the froth, until the juice is reduced to about 1 cup. Cool, bottle and store in the refrigerator. Use in soups, sauces, marinades, (and beverages–in cocktails, or to make pink lemonade) for a rich, tart flavor.
1 C. pomegranate juice
1/2 C. sugar
In a medium saucepan, combine the juice and sugar and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Boil for 1 minute, removed from heat and cool. Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.
Place pomegranate kernels in a blender and whirl until liquefied. Pour through a cheesecloth-lined strainer and drain, catching the juice. If you don’t have a blender, try this low-tech method: gently roll the whole unpeeled fruit on top of a hard surface until the seeds inside no longer crunch. Prick a hole, insert a straw, and squeeze the juice out slowly. Refrigerate for up to 5 days, or freeze up to 6 months.
Make ice cubes with whole pomegranate seed kernels in them for a festive touch!
Put a tablespoon of pomegranate syrup into a glass of your favorite Prosecco. Add a few fresh seeds into the glass and watch the bubbles make them dance!