Local produce is at an ebb right now. The farmers market is closed and locavores who thought ahead are relying on winter squash and root vegetables for their dinner tables. Grocery store produce is abundant, however, and there is currently a star making its annual appearance in time for the holidays—the pomegranate.
Few fruits have as festive a nature as the pomegranate. Apple-like in appearance, the leathery red orbs filled with jewels are abundant now, their color compatible with holiday decorations.
Pomegranates are one of the oldest of cultivated fruits, originating in Persia and spreading to North Africa, India and China, then through Europe and into Mexico where they landed with the Spanish conquistadors. Punica granatum, the current botanical name, refers to the geographical source, Carthage (Punica), and the fact that it contains many seeds, or grains. Each fruit contains between 200 and 1400 seeds (though I’ve yet to count them) so choose a fruit that is large and heavy for maximum juiciness.
Our word pomegranate comes from Middle French, pomme garnete, or seeded apple. Also called Chinese apple or love apple, the pomegranate is steeped in lore. It is believed to be an aphrodisiac and a fertility symbol, thanks to its many seeds. The ancient Greeks and Romans were fond of it and King Tut’s tomb contained the remains of shriveled up pomegranate seeds meant to fortify him on his journey to the next world.
In Greek myth, Persephone succumbs to the allure of the glistening seeds, eats them and falls prey to Hades who abducts her and forces her to remain in the underworld for six months every year, returning only in the spring. Medieval tapestries frequently depict pomegranates, often in conjunction with unicorns, deepening their magical quality.
Some of that magic is real. Pomegranates are extremely high in polyphenol antioxidants that fight free radical damage in the body. There are laboratory studies that show they cleanse the arterial walls of plaque build-up and serve to lower bad (LDL) cholesterol. They are an excellent source of potassium and vitamin C and one pomegranate contains only about 120 calories—surely you expend more calories than that picking those seeds apart.
Pomegranates were traditionally used to make grenadine, a popular fruit syrup that is made today by coloring and sweetening a citric acid solution.
How much more flavorful would those Tequila Sunrises and Shirley Temples be if they were made with the real thing? To make your own grenadine at home, remove the seeds from 4 pomegranates and process with food processor knife blade. Simmer pulp with 1/4 cup honey over low heat for 3 minutes. Stir well. Strain to remove the seeds.
Though not as widely appreciated as in Europe and Asia, pomegranates are gaining increasing popularity in the United States. Try sprinkling the seeds on a salad or on top of your fruit and yogurt in the morning for a festive touch. Our Christmas dinner included a delicious Wilted Winter Greens Salad garnished with pomegranate seeds—I remember glimpsing it right before my head fell into my Dryland Distillery killer eggnog. Or try them in this crimson non-alcoholic punch that is sure to brighten your holidays.
Ruby Holiday Punch
Makes 25 servings
- 2 twelve ounce containers frozen Niagara grape juice
- 2 twelve ounce containers frozen cranberry juice cocktail
- 96 ounces (3 quarts) water
- 16 ounces fresh or bottled pure pomegranate juice
- Crushed ice
- Starfruit for garnish (optional)
Allow the frozen juices to defrost partially and then mix them in a large punch bowl. Reconstitute them with the water, rinsing the containers thoroughly. (The proportion for the juices is 1 frozen juice to 2 containers of water, instead of the usual 3:1 ratio. This way, when you add lots of ice, you don’t dilute it too much.) Stir in the pomegranate juice and the shrub, if you use it. At serving time, add lots of crushed ice and float thin slices of starfruit on the top, or perch a slice in the rim of your glass.