PLYMOUTH, MASS. — My first encounter with a pomegranate was in third grade, a number of decades ago. I don't recall exactly how many decades, but it seems to me our mail was delivered by Pony Express.
My grade school was in the Italian section of town and I sat next to a little boy named Dominick Lentini, whose immigrant family owned a family market near school. One day, sometime before Christmas, he brought in several pomegranates for "show and tell." After he explained to the class what they were, it was time to break one open and taste it.
Most of the kids were a little dubious, but I loved it. At recess Dominick gave me a whole one. We peeled off the pink leathery skin to expose the hundreds of glistening, juicy seeds, and pushed them into our mouths as the juice dripped down our jackets, onto our shirts.
When I took off my jacket once I got home, my mother was not, shall we say, amused. The stain on my white shirt was indelible. Try as she did, it wouldn't wash out. The shirt is long gone, but I'm convinced the stain still exists somewhere.
Moral: When eating pomegranates out of hand, clothing is optional.
The pomegranate, native to Persia (Iran) and much of the Middle East, spread to China, India, and, in the 16th century, California. It has a long, rich, and colorful history. Some cultures associate the fruit with paradise, fertility, and abundance. It is mentioned in the Old Testament, (Exodus 39:25), and again in Deuteronomy 8:8, where Moses assured his followers as they fled Egypt that they would surely find this favored fruit in the Promised Land. Homer mentions it in his writing. Its appearance in ancient mythology is most interesting:
Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of fruit and fertility, was carried off by Hades, god of the underworld. In her effort to free her daughter, Demeter prevented all earthly plants from bearing fruit, thus creating winter. Hearing the cries of a people hungry for food, Zeus, king of the gods, pressured Hades to return Persephone to earth. Even though Persephone had vowed not to eat while in the underworld, which would ensure her spending eternity there, Hades tricked her with the luscious pomegranate. She spat out all the seeds except six, which she swallowed. The act required Persephone to return to the underworld for six months (winter) each year for the six seeds she had eaten. Thus saith the ancients.
Pomegranates have had a rebirth of sorts in the past several years. Its juice has been touted as an elixir. And chefs have put it on the food- fashion runway, replacing the tired kiwi and star fruits. And no wonder: The pomegranate is the Fabergé egg of foods. Once opened, it bursts forth with hundreds of rubylike edible gems that are now used to decorate a score of dishes.
When buying pomegranates, look for fruit that is bright-skinned, smooth, and heavy for its size. They can be stored in the refrigerator for two to three weeks, and the colorful fruits can be stored in zip-lock bags and frozen for several months.
To extract the juice, carefully slice the fruits in half, and ream them with an orange or lemon juicer. The juice can be used to marinate poultry or red meat, or added to ginger ale or soda water for a sweet-tart flavor. The berries (and they are berries) are most often sprinkled over salads, cold meats, ice cream, or a variety of desserts.
For a Martha Stewart moment, a bowl of pomegranates makes a handsome holiday decoration, and the berries make an interesting addition to any tossed salad. We've included one suggestion below. Feel free to add or subtract ingredients to your taste.
6-ounce bag of baby spinach or mixed greens
3 ounces (about half a cup) crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup mixed, pitted olives
1 dozen walnuts, shelled
1 small white onion, thinly sliced
Olive oil and vinegar dressing of your choice
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 pomegranate, berries removed and rinsed
Mix greens, feta, olives, walnut meats, and onion in a large salad bowl. Toss with your favorite olive oil and vinegar dressing, or vinaigrette, Season with salt and pepper and top with pomegranate berries (see note at right) just before serving.
Here's a neater way to extract the berries: Cut off the fruit's flower end. Score the skin into sections and put it in a bowl of water. Let soak five minutes. Break open the fruit in the bowl and let the seeds separate from the rind and sink. Discard rind, and drain seeds.