Seeing Red

Treasured throughout antiquity, the sexily hued pomegranate is embraced in today's kitchens.
When shopping for a pomegranate, choose one that feels heavy for its size and has tight, shiny skin. photo: Monte Costa

If I were to match a fruit to the red hearts of February, it would be the pomegranate. The fruit, with its juicy, ruby-colored seeds tucked inside a crimson shell, is as steeped in legend as St. Valentine himself.

The pomegranate is an ancient fruit, originally grown in the area today known as Iran and one of the seven fruits mentioned in the Old Testament. The fruit’s name is derived from the Middle French words pome garnete, "seeded apple," and some even say that Eve plucked a pomegranate, not an apple, from the Tree of Knowledge. The fruit is prominent in Egyptian art, and it also plays a role in the celebration of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.

In Greek mythology, Persephone, the daughter of the harvest goddess, Demeter, is imprisoned by Hades in the underworld, where she eats six pomegranate seeds. Demeter is so distraught by the kidnapping that she allows the crops to wither. The gods strike a deal for Persephone’s release: she must stay six months out of each year in the underworld, one month for each pomegranate seed she ate. The six months she is away from her mother are fall and winter.

In the fall, pomegranates are in season in Asia, the Mediterranean, California and Arizona. Fortunately for us, pomegranates bloom and fruit throughout the year in Hawai’i gardens.

Recently, pomegranates have become a trendy food, their edible seeds valued for color when sprinkled atop salads and desserts. The sweet/tart juice is used in drinks, salad dressings, marinades and sauces. Pomegranate sorbet is refreshing; pomegranate syrup drizzled over seared foie gras can be especially luscious. Natural pairings for pomegranates include chicken, turkey and lamb; apple, orange, lemon and tangerine; and ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and honey.

The key to enjoying a pomegranate is to get it into your mouth before breaking the seeds, because the juicy fragments can stain hands and clothing. But extracting the seeds from a fresh pomegranate is no small feat. Slice off the crown, then quarter the outer skin and break the fruit apart to get at the seeds. Immerse sections of the fruit in a bowl of water to gently extract the seeds from the white pith, avoiding the probability of juice-stained hands. To extract the juice, whirl the seeds in a blender and then strain the liquid. Or, cut the fruit in half and juice it as you would an orange.

If you can’t find fresh pomegranates, bottled juice, especially the kinds found in Middle Eastern grocery stores, makes an excellent alternative. Or try pomegranate molasses, a thickened, syrupy, slightly sweetened juice. A true grenadine syrup begins with pomegranate juice, but few commercially prepared syrups today contain any pomegranates at all.

Besides being high in potassium and vitamin C, pomegranates are touted for their abundance of polyphenols, antioxidants that may help prevent disease. You may not be able to ward off Hades with a pomegranate, but at least you can fight colds, make a great cocktail and garnish a salad.