Pomegranate trees are beautifully exotic. The deciduous shrub has glossy green leaves, bell-shaped crimson flowers that hummingbirds love, and heavy handfuls of round purse-shaped fruit loaded with edible seeds. In the heat of Southern California October, pomegranates evoke colorful images of ancient Persia, the splashing of cooling fountains and the scent of roses and orange blossoms. Closer to the holidays they are joyful decorations and eloquent additions to special menus.
This partially explains why on a dry and sweltering 99 degree October day I’ve gathered pomegranates off my tree, many of them split by the heat, and am laboriously harvesting the seeds dressed in my shorts and bikini top. I know I am doing myself a favor for later.
Whether you buy or grow pomegranates, there are three basic ways to prepare them: you break them open and eat the seeds, you remove the seeds to use in recipes, or you juice them. Actually, the seeds are the little black bits inside the red flesh, and what we call seeds are called arils. To make this easier on all of us, I’ll call them seeds.
To buy pomegranates, find heavy, glossy red fruits from September through about February. Make sure they don’t have any really soft spots on them. Store them decoratively in bowls for a week or two, or in the refrigerator for longer.
To eat fresh, find yourself a stain-proof area: this is messy and the juice stains. Cut the top off the fruit, make a slit down the side and with your thumbs or with the tip of the knife, pry it apart. This should be quite easy if the fruit is ripe. Inside are sections of glossy, deep red juicy seeds encased in a bitter white cushion called pith. If you say this word around anyone with a middle-school sense of humor you will be treated to an explosion of giggles. Anyway, you eat the seeds. They are not very sweet, but they should not be overly sour, either. Whether you just consume the juicy part and spit out the inner black bit (the real seed) or not is a matter of taste; they are good for spitting contests (outside!). However that little black seed holds the most fiber, so crunching away is healthier.
To juice, you can cut the fruit in half and use a juicer, or remove the seeds as noted below, and whirl gently in a blender. For either method you need to strain the juice through cheesecloth. The problem with the juicer method is that some pith does get into it, making the juice bitter. If you are using the juicer, a hand one or one that presses the fruit rather than an electric one that whirls is better. You don’t want any of the bitter pith to be grated into it. If using a blender, liquefy quickly without causing it to foam, or it won’t strain quickly. Two cups of seeds makes about one cup of juice. Drink as is, chilled or slightly warmed, or use to make molasses, syrup, grenadine, marinades and sauces. Store in the refrigerator.
Pomegranates are acidic so avoid using aluminum and carbon steel knives or pots as they can turn the juice bitter.
To prepare the seeds for recipes, this is what you do:
Dress in old clothes.
Set a bowl of water in the sink (this isn’t like shelling peas while sitting out on the porch rocker with the bowl on your lap. You need damage control!).
Put out a container for the pith. (!) I compost it, and hopefully you can compost, too.
Put out another bowl and a sieve for the finished seed.
Set up a cutting board with a paring knife.
Make sure you have a sponge handy.
Put on a good audio book or CD. I was listening to classical selections while doing this.
On the cutting board, slice the very top off a clean pomegranate and slice down the side, just through the outer layer. With your fingers or tip of the knife, crack the fruit open.
This is important: submerge the fruit in the bowl of water! (unless you like the ‘someone was just murdered here’ look for your kitchen walls). In the water, slide your fingers under the seeds to separate them from the pith, without squishing them much (you don’t want to lose the juice). If you start daydreaming and the fruit comes out of the water, it will squirt. Use that sponge on the walls, etc. Compost or discard the pith and shell. Pick out any pith that is floating in the water. It is edible but bitter.
When finished, or when the bowl is getting full, some of the extra pith will be floating on the top, so try draining it off, or skimming it with a small sieve. Then drain the seeds into a large sieve and put them in a bowl until you have seeded all the fruit you are going to do, or are just tired from standing.
The seeds can now be used fresh in recipes, juiced, or frozen in sealed freezer baggies. One 9 oz pomegranate holds about ¾ a cup of seeds. I’ve used frozen seeds on top of fruit salads or with certain main dishes over the holidays.
I’ve let smaller, less ripe pomegranates stand on flat platters (not touching) as decorations, and they have dried well for use in arrangements.
One half cup of arils (87g) has 80 calories, zero fat and 5 grams of dietary fiber (if you eat the whole aril), one gram of protein, and vitamin C, iron, and very high amounts of antioxidants.
The Pomegranate in History:
Many scholars believe that Eve’s apple in the first book of the Christian Bible was actually a pomegranate, which is the right size, shape color, and most importantly, grew in that area. The name pomegranate comes from the Latin word for apple, pomum and seeded, granatus. Indeed, the heavy red fruit with crimson arils bursting with juice against the soft white pith can be, lets say, food for thought. Ahem. No surprise then, is its symbol of fertility, new life, and most good things. Pomegranates hold strong symbolic meaning in Judaism and the Greek Orthodox Church. In Greek mythology, Persephone was tricked into eating pomegranate seeds by her kidnapper Hades, and could only then return to the world that many seasons (the number varies depending on the number of dry seasons). During the months of Persephone’s absence, her mother Demeter’s (goddess of the harvest) mourning kept anything from growing, explaining winter.
Trivia: the Spanish capitol was renamed Grenada after the fruit during the Moorish occupation.