Fertile Fruit

by Jeanne

Pomegranate

Buy the pomegranate when it laughs —
its laughter reveals the secret of its seeds.
The garden answers the laughing pomegranate with bloom;
In companionship with the friends of God
you will bloom as they do.

–Rumi

Rich garnet-colored pomegranate juice is seductive. Some might even say it’s not worth the trouble due to the work involved breaking through the leathery skin and then tearing through the bitter membrane to find your reward—pockets of seeds containing juice. With patience and effort reward is close. But we are as a culture don’t have a lot of experience with this particular fruit so maybe this is why most pomegranates wind up as decorative accents in wreaths and holiday centerpieces. Today, with freshly bottled pomegranate juices readily available we can easily endeavor to experiment with the cooking of Armenia, Georgia, Morocco and Iran where the practice of pairing meat and fruit in a meal is common.

The tree and it’s fruit is Native to Iran and popular throughout the Middle East and as far as Northern India. Since ancient times it has been widely cultivated in the drier parts of Southeast Asia, Malaya, the East Indies and tropical Africa. Spanish settlers introduced the tree into California in 1769. Up until recently it has been grown in the U.S. primarily for the Latin population particularly for chiles en nogada, a stuffed poblano chiles with walnut sauce that is served on September 16th to commemorate Mexican independence from Spain. The pomegranate seeds are used to symbolize the red in the Mexican flag.

Pomegranates, the name comes from the French “pomme garnete” or “seeded apple” have a wide cultural history. In Greek mythology, Hades, the god of the Underworld, kidnapped Zeus’s daughter, Persephone carrying her into the underworld. He offered her a pomegranate of which she ate a 6 pieces of the seeds. This action condemned her to spending half of the year with Pluto (winter) and half with the world of the living (summer). Religious scholars also now believe that it was a pomegranate, not an apple, which Eve was offered in the Garden of Eden. In Judaism, the pomegranate is a symbol of fertility and prosperity, relating to the first commandment of the Torah, to be fruitful and multiply. Pomegranates decorated the pillars of the Temple of King Solomon, and they still decorate the handles of Torah scrolls today. In Christian art they symbolize hope. In Arabic folklore and poetry, it is a symbol for the female breast. In modern Greece, they embody agatha, the good things of life. The red color, the resemblance of its juice to blood, and its many seeds link pomegranate to fertility in many cultures.

Many cultures such as the Middle and Near East, Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America have many uses for all parts of this fruit tree. The rind is used to produce an indelible dye, and the root, bark and flower, produce tannins for curing leather and medicines.

Pomegranate fruits are typically presented as a juice. If you can’t find the nifty new bottled juice called “Pom” you’ll need to work on your technique for prying one open. This is done by first cutting off the crown end; score the skin in quarters from top to bottom and break the sections apart; gently scoop the seed clusters into a bowl; remove any pith.

Alice Waters has a technique where you can break open the pomegranate underwater; the plump seeds will then sink to the bottom while the membrane and pith floats to the top. This also helps to prevent stains.

Photo: Purdue Horticultural Department

Once opened you’ll see a tough, bitter membrane holding 840 arils, each is a sack of juice that surrounds a seed. The sacks can be removed and put through a basket press or by reaming the halved fruits with an ordinary orange juice squeezer. One medium pomegranate yields about 3/4 cup seeds and 1/2 cup juice. The seeds can be frozen for up to 3 months

Why all the fuss? The juice is sweet yet tart and can be used in a variety of ways–a fresh juice; jellies; sorbets or cold or hot sauces as well as to flavor cakes, marinades and a host of beverages, alcoholic and otherwise. Grenadine, the sweet red mixer used for Shirley Temples, was traditionally made from pomegranate juice. It’s not anymore, it’s mostly red food coloring, so skip it as a good substitute solution.

Today, it’s the juice that is getting all the attention these days in the press. Recent medical research suggests that the juice contains antioxidants that work against heart disease and cancer. According to a recent Health magazine stated that “drinking 8 oz. of pomegranate juice daily for 2 weeks made LDL (bad) cholesterol less like to clump and stick to arteries.” So drink up.

Pomegranates are available from September through January. Since they don’t ripen after they’re picked, and there’s no outside indicators toward their ripeness you will need to trust the grower. It should be heavy for its size and have a fresh and blemish free appearance. Out of season, I have substituted with pomegranate molasses, which is available in Middle Eastern grocery stores. These days it’s also possible to find refrigerated, fresh juice called “Pom Wonderful” in the produce section of the market. The Wonderful aspect refers to the variety of fresh pomegranate that is used to make the juice.

The cooking practice of bringing together meat with fruit is commonly found in the cooking of Armenia, Georgia, Morocco and Iran. Khoresh, Persian home-style stews, originated in the province of Gilan, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, where there it is traditionally made with duck. It is often served during Ramadan with the buttered basamati rice dish, called chelou, saff-steamed rice, which is heaped on each dinner plate with the khoresh served on top. In Iran this is called chelow khoresh.

Khoreshe Fesenjan

Persian Stew with Walnuts and Pomegranates

Based on a recipe from “In a Persian Kitchen” by M. Mazda

Cooking Note: To achieve the slow fusing of flavors that characterizes khoresh, it is best to cook it in a heavy pot. I recommend a classic Dutch oven, but a solid hefty stew pot will do. Also, this dish is traditionally prepared with duck so I adapted this recipe for a slightly healthier version.

Serves 4

4 boneless chicken breasts
1 large onion — finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups chicken broth
3/4 cup ground walnuts
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup fresh pomegranate juice

Wash and pat dry chicken for sautéing Brown the chicken breasts until just about cooked. They will finish cooking during the last 10 minutes. After cooked remove and set aside.

Saute the onion in the oil until transparent. Add lemon juice, pepper, (salt) and chicken stock. Simmer over medium heat for 15 minutes. Add pomegranate juice or molasses and ground walnuts. Cover and simmer on low heat for an additional 35-45 minutes. Place chicken in back into pan with sauce. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes longer. Serve over warm rice.

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