It could be that pomegranates were the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. They’re nothing much to look at on the outside but the clusters of ruby-red jewel-like seeds inside could have seduced even the staunchest of hearts. And removing the crimson seeds from their spongy honeycomb interior is like plucking jewels from a treasure chest, an irresistible temptation.
Pomegranate loosely translates as many-seeded apple, but apples they are not. For a start, you can’t eat the leathery skin, nor the creamy-coloured seed cushioning known as ‘rag’, because it is too bitter. And unlike the apple, it’s the seeds, the edible part, which need careful handling to release them intact.
The seeds, shaped like corn kernels, are bursting with sweet, tart juice. Each little ‘kernel’ has a few small seeds that are easily crunched, and when eaten with other foods you won’t even notice them.
Choose pomegranates that feel heavy for their size as they will be full of seeds and juice, and go for fruit that doesn’t have airy pockets or brown marks on the skin. With their russety-red skin and pouch-like shape they may look like a work of art in the fruit bowl, but they’ll dry out quickly, especially in warm weather, but if you store them in a bag in a vegetable crisper in a fridge they can stay fresh for several weeks.
They’re a bit of a fiddle to prepare, but it is sensuous work, and satisfying somehow to extract all the little sparkling seeds. I warn you, though, wear protective clothing. Start with a sharp knife and cut off the crown, that’s the bobbly bit at the top of the fruit, ensuring you cut off enough to reveal the top of the seeds but without cutting into them. Scoop out any creamy-coloured membrane from the top without disturbing the seeds, then run the knife down through the thick skin, trying not to nick the seeds, marking the fruit into 6-8 segments. Turn the fruit over, cut end facing downwards, and break it apart by pulling the skin away. Dealing with a segment at a time, push on the outer skin and dislodge the seeds with the fingers. No matter how careful you are, you’ll get squirted with pinhead spots of juice. It’s not the time to wear anything white – I suggest an apron.
It’s easier to prepare the fruit in water, and you’ll avoid splatters, but water-soluble vitamins can leach out if you soak the seeds for any length of time. There is an advantage with this method though, because the honeycomb membrane will float to the surface where it can be skimmed off. Another way is to cut a pomegranate in half, and holding it in your hand cut side down over a bowl, tap the skin all over with some pressure to dislodge the seeds. With this method I find there is still lots of picking required to get all the seeds dislodged, so, hmmm, I don’t really bother with it.
Pomegranates are used for their seeds and the juice they yield. The simplest way to extract the juice is to cut the fruit in half and juice it the way you do an orange. This is definitely best done in a sink to minimise squirting. Unfortunately this presses on the creamy honeycomb membranes, and imparts a hint of bitterness.
It is better to extract the seeds as described and to transfer them to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse for several seconds only, until they look very slushy, then run this through a piece of cheesecloth or a strainer. Squeeze the cheesecloth to extract as much juice as possible. Put the juice in a container, cover and refrigerate and use within three days. There’s plenty of juice in each pomegranate – a good-sized pomegranate should yield about 1 cup of seeds and about ½ cup of juice. Both the seeds and juice can be frozen. To freeze the seeds, spread them out in a single layer on a tray and freeze, then when frozen, tumble them into a sealable bag or container. The juice is delicious served chilled on a smotheringly-hot day, and quenches the thirst just like a chilled beer.
Wash your hands immediately after preparing pomegranates to minimise staining, and wipe up as you go – those dots of juice end up everywhere!
Deliciously juicy, sweet-tart to taste, with a hint of tannin, the seeds can be eaten on their own, but a decision has to be made at some point, as it does with passionfruit, whether to spit or swallow. It’s easy to crunch up a few seeds, but it gets tedious after awhile, but strangely, when you eat pomegranate seeds with other things, you crunch up the seeds without being aware of them.
Pomegranates can tolerate a lousy and cold winter, and thrive in poor soil, providing in turn they are served up a scorching hot summer. New Zealand very rarely delivers this kind of climate so most pomegranates sold here are imported, usually from the US, and being an autumn fruit, they arrive on our shores during our warmer months of late spring and summer. That means they are here now, and all through the festive season, to prettify platters of food.
The fruit available in New Zealand is termed ‘sweet’. It’s the juice of sour pomegranates that is boiled down to make pomegranate molasses, an essential flavouring in Middle Eastern cuisines.
Pomegranate juice is the base of genuine grenadine (it is often artificially made nowadays), the syrupy-sweet cerise liquor which cascades through the sunshine yellow layer eventually meeting its nemesis – tequila – in the cocktail tequila sunrise, popular in the late seventies and eighties.
Pomegranates have been around a long time, originating it is believed in Persia. but if they are new to you, now is our time to get to know them. Buy a good sized fruit and allow plenty of time to prepare it; the seeds will keep in a fridge for several days so it doesn’t have to be last-minute job.
Whether you eat them at the sink at midnight, or in the bath for that matter, or at the beach with your lover (you can always dunk your head in the bath water or dash into the surf for a clean-up), squeeze out the juice and drink it, or use it in cooking, you’ll be getting a whack of goodness. Pomegranates contain a powerful antioxidant with high levels of polyphenols which help protect us against disease. They have 2-3 times the antioxidant potency of red wine, and are higher in polyphenols than green tea and cranberry juice. And they taste delicious.
Once you’ve got the seeds, you’ll marvel over their sparkly beauty and you’ll want to scatter them over everything, I bet. Here are a few ideas to get you going:
Add them to fresh fruit salads, especially at this time of year with strawberries and stone fruit, and add a can of drained lychees to ring the changes. They are also great with mango, pawpaw and papaya.
I love them with fried or barbecued eggplant slices. Put a dollop of yoghurt and a little tuft of chopped mint on each slice, then scatter with pomegranate seeds. Add to this with barbecued or grilled lamb cutlets, or spicy lamb cutlets dusted with toasted ground cumin and chilli powder or harissa, and you’ve got a fabbie summer meal. You can even take it further using lamb, eggplant, roasted vegetables and mint and serve the lot with couscous, freekeh, barley or burghul, with yoghurt or yoghurt and tahini sauce on the side. See Butterflied leg of lamb with preserved lemon
They brighten a dish of roasted or barbecued summer vegetables, so scatter away, first dribbling with yoghurt if you want to give them a sauce. Or make an exotic salad with cooked, sliced multi-coloured beetroot, fresh-cracked walnuts, sliced tangelos, a drizzle of pomegranate molasses and a handful of pomegranate seeds.
They’ll make a chicken and fresh peach salad look pretty. I love them with roasted tarragon chicken, broken into joints and served warm on cos lettuce, topped with sautéed fresh peaches and toasted almonds, splashed with a raspberry vinegar dressing, or swirl seeds through a bowl of yoghurt to accompany a roast chicken flavoured with cumin, cinnamon and ginger.
They add a lift to grain salads or warm dishes, too. Scatter over a buttery rice pilaf along with toasted almonds and chopped preserved lemon. Or add to a couscous salad with mint, cherry tomatoes, cubed creamy feta, chopped red onion and a lemony vinaigrette. Make a Persian salad with burghul, soaked and softened dried apricots, or fresh chopped apricots, pine nuts, allspice, cinnamon and parsley, and thread through a cup of pomegranate seeds.
Sprinkle a few seeds over a roasted red pepper, garlic and walnut dip to brighten, or to lift the colour of a bowl of bean dip.
While you could make a make a mountain of cream-filled meringues to finish your Christmas or festive feast, drizzled with a raspberry coulis and scattered with pomegranate seeds, time might be tight, and other ideas might escape you. Here’s what to do for an easy help-yourself dessert: load a large platter with strawberries, cubed watermelon and stone fruits, mini chocolate fish (yes, really!) or scorched chocolate almonds or chocolate treats of some kind, salted almonds, macadamias and walnuts (all must be beautifully fresh), chopped dried figs and muscatels, or whatever you have to hand (just about the contents of your fridge or pantry!), then dust with a little icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar) and raspberry powder, and scatter with masses of pomegranate seeds. Pretty as a picture. Or up the ante and get the aunties tut-tutting, and dust the lot with chilli powder, flaky sea salt, lime zest or blitzed kaffir lime leaves, then top with pomegranate seeds! Oh, gorgeous in all its shockingness! It’ll give everyone something to talk about instead of grizzling about his or her Christmas presents!
Dancing Bubbles – this is cute!
Put a tablespoon or two of pomegranate molasses in a champagne flute and fill with bubbly. Add a few seeds and watch the bubbles make them dance! Serve immediately.
Persian Pomegranate & Yoghurt Sauce
Extract the seeds from a pomegranate as described. Mix 1 cup thick Greek yoghurt with 1 small clove of crushed garlic, 2 Tbsp chopped parsley (or use coriander/cilantro) and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Swirl through most of the pomegranate seeds, crushing them a little to extract some juice. Spoon the rest of the pomegranate seeds on top. Serve with roasted chicken cooled to room temperature, or barbecued lamb kebabs, or with roasted vegetables and warm puffy pita pockets.
Photography Main images Aaron McLean http://www.aaronmclean.com
Photography Pomegranates in Tuscany Remo Biuso