Once, wandering through a 14th Century garden in Italy, I spied a charming little shrub drooping with pink-red fruits: a pomegranate tree. Imagining the castle’s former inhabitants enjoying the beauty of the tree and lavish dishes made from the glittering red seeds, I snapped about a dozen pictures to remember it by – completely confounding my husband, who thinks that taking pictures of trees while on vacation (which I'm partial to doing in general) is pretty weird. But I think few fruit rival the pomegranate – tree, flower and fruit alike – in beauty and flavor. I look at my snapshots from that day from time to time, to be transported back to that moment and my pleasure at seeing the little Italian pomegranate tree laden with fruit.
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 (CE), 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 US.
In ancient Persia, the pomegranate was associated with fertility and prosperity. Ancient Egyptians buried their dead with the fruit, and King Tut’s tomb contained a silver vase in the shape of a pomegranate. The fruit appears in the Old Testament numerous times, and even appeared on coins in ancient Judea. In Greece, the pomegranate was associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and with the Underworld. 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 are the winter months – the length of which (either four or six, depending on the source) corresponds to the number of pomegranate seeds she ate.
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. Globally, Egypt, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, India, Burma and Saudi Arabia (source) 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. 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 ag schools in Florida and Georgia, although neither state yet produces a viable commercial crop.
In the US, fresh pomegranates generally come ripe in September or October and are available until January.
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. (n.b., pomegranates do not appear on the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. *Check out our fruit and vegetable rule of thumb.) Also, 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. (For an explanation of water banking and the Resnick’s role in the hullabaloo, also see this article)
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.
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.
Seek out pomegranates that feel very heavy for their size, with no black or bruised spots on the rind.
Pomegranates can be stored in the refrigerator for anywhere between one and six months(though I think two months is the longest I've ever kept one in the fridge). 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.
The pomegrantate’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 chile 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, and by the looks of this, not at all easy to make!) Both fresh and dried pomegranate seeds are used in Indian cuisine – check out this awesome video on how to make dried pomegranate seed chutney.
My favorite way (besides this holiday punch, which employs pomegranate juice and an ice ring studded with pomegranate seeds and mint) to use pomegranate seeds is as a salad topper – they make any salad elegant and beautiful, plus they add tang and crunch. Kim O recommends using the seeds as a garnish for whole grains and legumes – I agree, and I think they pair particularly well with farro and with lentils (as in this lentil and pomegranate tart from our Meatless Monday friends). 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 (tequila sunrise, anyone?) – 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.
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:
Pomegranate jelly is a fun and beautiful way to preserve pomegranates, as is homemade pomegranate molasses. (Though note that making pomegranate molasses requires you to juice pomegranates – a fairly labor-intensive process. Or use bottled juice.) 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!
The double hit of pomegranate – both pomegranate molasses and fresh pomegranate seeds – is used to add crunch and a bit of acid to sweet roasted carrots. I prefer to serve this at room temperature (making it a great do-ahead dish), but it would be perfectly delicious warm or cold.
4 medium carrots, trimmed and peeled
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1⁄8 teaspoon allspice
1⁄4 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1⁄4 cup fresh pomegranate seeds
Fresh mint or cilantro, chopped
(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)