By Ellen Kelly
The pomegranate has many religious and mythical distinctions, with the end result being somewhat muddled, I find. Since its cultivation predates written history, I suppose that can be forgiven. The name simply means seedy apple, with no other clues, but anywhere it appears over time it has titillated the imagination.
The pomegranate is often a symbol of fertility, suggested, I assume, by the profusion of blood red seeds. Greek mythology gives us Persephone’s six pomegranate seeds that are meant to signify the six months of winter with which Demeter cursed the world at her daughter’s exile to Pluto’s underworld realm. My favourite story, however, is of the nymph who was carrying on lasciviously with Bacchus. He promised her a crown for all her exertions and instead, turned her into a pomegranate. The pomegranate’s pronounced crown-shaped calyx is all that is left to remind us of her gullibility.
The pomegranate has also been used as an emblem for British and European monarchs and aristocracy throughout the years, but more to the point, it has become a symbol of celebration, hospitality and affluence in much the same way the pineapple has. In many regions of Greece, people hang the fruit from doorways and display it on tables at Christmas-time.
The pomegranate’s origins are in the Middle East (Persia, Syria, Turkey, etc.), but it’s now grown in hot, dry, sub-tropical regions throughout the world. It’s a beautiful little tree (or bush) with bright orange or red flowers in the spring and often grown in yards (where one can) as an ornamental. The fruit we are most familiar with is the Wonderful variety, grown in the Central Valley of California and found in markets from September to December. They are generally red-skinned, about the size of a grapefruit and have very sweet bright ruby-red seeds.
Pomegranates don’t ripen after they’re picked and colour is not an indication of ripeness; trust in the grower is necessary. Choose fruit that is heavy in the hand. This indicates juiciness as well as freshness. The skin is leathery, but should not be dried out. I always look at the characteristic crown-shaped calyx and make sure it is intact and pliable. Eschew any fruit that has broken skin or soft spots.
Jane Grigson, whom I revere, calls it an unrewarding fruit, which of course it can be. Successfully extracting the seeds intact from the fruit takes some doing. There are several methods of accomplishing this, some involve scoring, some require underwater activity and others require beating the fruit halves with a wooden spoon.
I’ve found that by inserting the tip of a chef’s knife an inch or so into the blossom end and twisting until the fruit cracks open to be the least messy and most effective way to unlock a pomegranate.
Once open, the fruit can be subsequently broken open further. Pomegranate seeds are encased, in a haphazard way, in an astringent whitish membrane that must be peeled off and discarded. The seeds can then be easily prised off with a thumb. This is a fun activity to do with kids if you’re so inclined. Pomegranate juice stains, so be prepared. Seeds can be kept in the fridge, covered, for a couple of days before being used as a garnish or juiced for marinades, beverages and the like. Chilled, the whole fruit will keep for several weeks.
As to recipes that are more involved than just scattering the seeds on top of something, my inclination is to buy good quality pomegranate juice or molasses at a Middle eastern grocery or market and proceed from there. A bottle of pomegranate molasses is a lovely ingredient to have on hand.
The sharp sweetish flavour can often take the place of citrus in many preparations. For instance, I use it when I braise red cabbage for a deeper flavour and that indefinable je ne sais quoi. The juice and the molasses are also excellent in marinades for lamb, pork and chicken. Muhammara, a tasty Levantine dip, is easy to make and quite addictive.
Put the charred, peeled flesh of 3 red peppers in a large mortar, add ²/³ cup fresh bread crumbs, 1 (or more to your taste) crushed garlic clove, 1 tsp fresh lemon juice, 2-3 tsp pomegranate molasses, 1 tsp ground cumin and 1 Tbsp Aleppo chilli flakes (worth seeking out, but regular chili flakes will do). Work this with the pestle until well combined, but still retaining some texture. This can be done in a food processor up to this point, but I prefer the texture (and experience) achieved by a mortar and pestle. Stir in about ¹/³ cup lightly toasted, finely chopped walnuts, a generous pinch of salt and 2 Tbsp good olive oil. Taste and add more pomegranate molasses and salt as needed for an intense flavour. Spread over the bottom of a shallow bowl with the back of a spoon and drizzle with a final flourish of oil to serve.
I especially like muhammara with roast chicken, but it is lovely simply served alongside hummus and accompanied by olives and fresh middle Eastern bread.