Real Food Encyclopedia | Pomegranates
The pomegranate is an ancient fruit, with much symbolism and religious significance associated with it. Native to Iran, where wild pomegranate trees can still be found, it was probably first domesticated around 3000 BCE by the ancient Persians. Pomegranate cultivation quickly spread to Israel and Northern India, then to North Africa around 2000 BCE, via the sea-faring Phoenicians and finally to the rest of the Mediterranean. In the 16th century, the Spanish brought the pomegranate to Central and South America, and by the 1700s the trees were being grown in what would later become the southern United States.
Fun Facts about Pomegranates:
- Probably the most famous myth involving the fruit is that of Persephone: kidnapped by Hades, the king of the Underworld, she was tricked into eating pomegranate seeds. Whoever consumed food or drink in the Underworld was fated to remain there, so Persephone was forced to spend part of the year with Hades. The time she spends in the Underworld makes up the winter months.
- “Pomegranate” means “seedy apple” (in Latin, pomum = “apple,” granatus = “seedy”). The same Latin root is responsible for the beautiful Spanish city, Grenada (grenada is the Spanish word for pomegranate) and grenadine, a sweet syrup used in cocktails that was originally made with pomegranate juice.
- The word “grenade” comes from the French word for pomegranate (grenade), supposedly because the first grenades resembled pomegranates in shape.
- Pomegranate juice and rind has historically been used to make ink (here’s a recipe) and dyes.
What to Look for When Buying Pomegranates
The pomegranate fruit is usually about the size of a large orange or grapefruit, with thick, leathery skin. Although the cultivars commonly seen in the US have dark red to reddish-brown skin, there are also varieties with orange, yellow, pink and cream-colored rind (sadly, we are unlikely to see these at our local market). The interior of the fruit contains hundreds of arils — the fleshy coating of the plant’s seeds — that are red, pink or cream colored, enclosed by a yellow- or cream-colored astringent (and inedible) pulp.
Seek out pomegranates that feel very heavy for their size, with no black or bruised spots on the rind.
Sustainability of Pomegranates
If you are a strict locavore, pomegranates may not be the fruit for you, unless you live in California. Almost all of the pomegranates available in the US are trucked in from California, as there are few (or no) local options for the fruit in the majority of US states.
It’s worth noting that the US’s largest producers of pomegranate products, POM Wonderful, is a company privately owned by billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick (who also own Fiji Water and Teleflora), who have been involved in controversy (and a lawsuit) surrounding the privatization of a major water bank in California.
Pesticides and Pomegranates
In California, pomegranate trees may be affected by a number of different pests and fungi, resulting in the need to treat the plants with various pesticides. Look for organic pomegranates in the market to avoid these chemicals.
In the US, fresh pomegranates generally become available in September or October and are available until January.
Pomegranates and Geography
Globally, Egypt, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, India, Burma and Saudi Arabia are all important pomegranate growing countries. In the US, production of the fruit has gained in popularity over the last few decades, with California leading the nation in pomegranate cultivation.
The pomegranate is a small tree or shrub with lovely red flowers, widely grown ornamentally as well as for its fruit. It is best adapted to a semi-tropical or Mediterranean climate, preferring hot summers and cool winters, and does not tolerate extreme cold temperatures. The tree is also highly heat- and drought-tolerant.
There are dozens of cultivars of the fruit — the variety is especially remarkable in the Middle East — but the vast majority of pomegranates seen in US markets are the “Wonderful” and “Grenada” types. Pomegranate production is also being researched by agriculture schools in Florida and Georgia, although neither state yet produces a viable commercial crop.
Pomegranates can be stored in the refrigerator for anywhere between one and six months (though two months seems to be pushing it in our experience). Storing them on the counter tends to dry out the fruit; however, once dry, they make a very pretty addition to a table centerpiece or holiday decoration.
Cooking with Pomegranates
Because a decidedly un-yummy pulp surrounds them, it can be a bit of a pain to get to the seeds. There are two basic ways the pros use to get to those juicy red nuggets of deliciousness:
- Whack-with-a-spoon method: put a large bowl in the sink. Halve pomegranate horizontally through the blossom end. Holding one half of the pomegranate, cut side down, over the bowl, whack the rind with the back of a large wooden spoon. The seeds will fall out into the bowl. Repeat until most of the seeds have been smacked out. Do be sure to whack the pomegranate over the sink — it can get a bit messy and pomegranate juice stains something fierce.
- Underwater method: fill a large bowl with water. Cut the pomegranate into quarters. Submersing pomegranate quarters in the bowl, pull the seeds out with your fingers. The tannic pulp is light and will float to the top, while the heavier seeds will sink.
The pomegranate’s culinary gift is a perfect balance between sweet and tart, making the fruit at home in both sweet and savory dishes. The jewel-like seeds are delicious eaten out of hand, and pomegranate juice is tart and refreshing. The pomegranate is used extensively in many Middle Eastern cuisines (in both sweet and savory dishes). Pomegranate molasses, a syrup made from reduced pomegranate juice, is employed to add a sweet-tart depth of flavor to many dishes, and pomegranate seeds are used to garnish everything from salads to desserts.
One of the most famous dishes in Persian cuisine, khoresht fesenjan, is meat (usually chicken or duck) topped with a savory, thick sauce of pomegranate molasses and walnuts. Interestingly, one of Mexico’s national dishes, chile en nogada, also involves pomegranate seeds and walnuts: in it, a fresh green chili is blanketed with a white, creamy sauce made from walnuts, then topped with fresh pomegranate seeds. The dish is supposed to symbolize the colors of the Mexican flag and looks amazing. Both fresh and dried pomegranate seeds are used in Indian cuisine.
Our favorite way to use pomegranate seeds is as a salad topper — they make any salad elegant and beautiful, plus they add tang and crunch. Use the seeds as a garnish for whole grains and legumes — they pair particularly well with farro and with lentils. They also make delicious companions to pastured lamb and pork dishes and are great as garnish for puddings, tarts and fruit salads.
Grenadine, traditionally a mixture of pomegranate juice, sugar and aromatics — like orange flower water — is used to flavor many a cocktail, but beware commercial grenadine syrup: it’s mostly high fructose corn syrup and red dye. You can make your own grenadine to avoid such unpleasantness.
Pomegranate jelly is a fun and beautiful way to preserve pomegranates, as is homemade pomegranate molasses. The seeds can also be frozen: spread on a cookie sheet in one layer and freeze. Once frozen, transfer to zip-top freezer bags. You can also freeze whole pomegranates!
A number of ancient cultures used the pomegranate (including the seeds, bark and flowers) as a cure for intestinal worms and for inflammation of multiple body parts. The fruit is very high in Vitamins C and K, and is a good source of folate, potassium, copper and even iron. The antioxidant properties of pomegranate juice is off the charts — particularly a potent class of antioxidant called polyphenols that may slow cancer growth and lower heart disease risk.