Know your pomegranates
Many years ago, on my first trip to India, I tasted pomegranates for the first time. I went to the market and bought a big bag of them, squeezed the juice into a glass and topped it up with chilled soda water. It was cooling and delicious. I was also intrigued on a recent trip to Granada (which incidentally is the Spanish word for pomegranate) in Spain to see them growing in every public garden we visited and even wild on patches of wasteland, not surprising as their seeds are distributed by birds.
Pomegranates have always been an expensive luxury fruit in New Zealand, until now. They are being grown in New Zealand but the bins of them I have seen this year in the supermarket are full of imported fruit which is not expensive. They seem to have gone mainstream, you can even buy punnets of the seeds.
The pomegranate’s botanical name, Punica granatum, is a combination of the ancient Roman name for them which translates as “Carthaginian apple”, hence the “Punic” part of the first word, and the Latin word for “many seeds”, granatum, hence the Spanish “Granada”. I have always loved food writer Alan Davidson’s description of pomegranates: “The pomegranate has an interior of surpassing beauty, like an ovoid Faberge jewel-case opened to display rubies within.” And indeed it is. The pomegranate has a leathery ivory-through-rose-to scarlet coloured skin. This leathery skin means they will keep an extraordinary length of time in the fridge. I have kept them refrigerated for at least a month with no adverse effects.
The interior contains white spongy flesh in which are embedded lots of seeds encased in ruby-coloured juice capsules. Some people have a problem with the seeds. I just chew the juice capsules lightly to release the juice without breaking the seeds and then swallow them. You can eat pomegranates simply by slicing in half and picking out the seed capsules with a spoon or with a large pin as I once saw my 5-year-old son doing.
Releasing the seed capsules from the white flesh is easy, though a little messy if you are not prepared. I prefer to slice the pomegranate through its equator, take one half in my hand, give it a gentle squeeze to loosen the seed capsules, hold it, seed-side down over a large bowl (to contain splatters of the scarlet juice — you might want to wear an apron) and firmly tap the skin with a rolling pin or wooden spoon. The seed capsules will be released into the bowl.
How to use
Pomegranate (by which I mean the seed capsules) makes a beautiful garnish for savoury salads (roasted beetroot, red onion and mint with balsamic vinaigrette and a good sprinkling of pomegranate); fruit salads (diced watermelon, sliced strawberries and pitted cherries with a little sugar and rosewater, sprinkled with pomegranate has been a big hit in our house this summer); creamy desserts (try pomegranate sprinkled on the top of your next pavlova or panna cotta); or just about any Middle Eastern dish (think rice pilafs or cumin- and cinnamon-dusted, garlicky barbecued lamb cutlets with pomegranate-sprinkled yoghurt and mint). The juice is good in dressings, or just to drink. The cocktail ingredient, Grenadine, was traditionally made from concentrated pomegranate juice.
When buying pomegranates look for glossy, unbruised (they shouldn’t have soft bits) fruit with no cuts or deep dents and pray that the establishment selling them knows about quality, as the leathery skin makes it hard to judge by feel or smell. The sides do flatten out a bit as they ripen so a perfect sphere isn’t necessarily the best shape.
Pomegranates are a delectable fruit. It is no
wonder that in ancient Greek myth, when Persephone was abducted and taken to the underworld and
refused to eat, it was a pomegranate that tempted her. She swallowed six seeds, which meant she had to return to the underworld for six months which became winter on earth.