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Pomegranates: A Wonderful Mystery

Pomegranates are here! You might be thinking, “Pomegranates? Big deal! I don’t even know what to do with them, but they sure look nice as a decorative ornament in my fruit bowl.”
Until recently, this has been the fate of most pomegranates. However, documented studies on the health benefits of this mysterious fruit have sparked our interests. Only in the last five years have Americans eagerly sought out the pomegranate, and mostly for its medicinal virtues. Pomegranate juice can now be purchased almost anywhere, at any time of the year.

That’s great, but November is fresh pomegranate season. For many, the mystery lies in what to do with the fresh fruit. What part do we eat? What do we do with it? Are we supposed to eat the seeds? How do we know if it’s ripe?

A brief history
The pomegranate is one of the earliest known cultivated fruits, dating back as far as 2000 B.C. They are native to Persia. Arab caravans are thought to have spread their use through the Middle East, Africa, and India. By 100 B.C. they had reached the Far East by a representative of the Han dynasty.

The pomegranate made its way to Italy from Africa via Carthage and was called the Punic apple by the Romans. Its Latin name, Punicum malum means Carthage apple. The current botanical name Punicum granatum again recognizes Carthage as a focal point of cultivation with granatum referring to the many seeds, or grains, of the fruit.

The Moors brought it to Spain in 800 A.D. They had such admiration for the fruit that it became Spain’s national emblem. King Henry VIII is credited with planting the first pomegranate in Britain, thus catapulting it into royal status.

The French named the grenade after the seed-scattering properties of the pomegranate.
Spanish conquistadors brought the fruit to the Americas, and Jesuit missionaries carried them north into California in the 1700s. Currently in the U.S., commercial cultivation of the fruit is relatively minor. The Wonderful variety is the primary cultivar and is grown in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

Legends and lore
With such a robust history, it is no wonder the pomegranate appears in the legends and lore of many cultures. It is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey and the myth of Persephone. The pomegranate is a traditional symbol of fertility, bounty and good virtue. Ancient Egyptians buried the dead with pomegranates in hopes of rebirth. Jewish tradition states that pomegranates have 613 seeds, representing the 613 commandments in the Torah. Pomegranates are used in traditional ceremonies and rituals wherever they are cultivated. They adorn ancient architecture, clothing, and works of art.

Not all extol the good virtues of the pomegranate. Many believe it was the Punic apple (pomegranate) that got Adam and Eve thrown out of Eden, therefore making it the forbidden fruit of temptation!

Nutrition and health
Whether or not you believe the pomegranate to be the forbidden fruit, it’s a scientific fact that pomegranates are good for you. Pomegranates are high in vitamin C and potassium, low in calories, and a good source of fiber if you’re consuming the seeds.

However, it’s not the vitamins and minerals that make the pomegranate unique; it’s the concentration of antioxidant polyphenols. Pomegranates contain a particularly high level of three types of antioxidant polyphenols: tannins, anthocyanins, and ellagic acid. Consumption of pomegranate juice has been found effective in reducing heart disease. Pomegranate juice reduces oxidation, keeps our cells pliable, and reduces blood pressure. Research also indicates that pomegranate juice may be effective against certain types of cancer, prostate and colon in particular.

Research on the health benefits of pomegranates is relatively new. Let’s face it, enthusiasm for pomegranates as a food is nowhere near as high in America as it is in other parts of the world. Maybe someone should have tried deep-frying it! Americans have eaten themselves sick; heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death in the U.S., and pomegranates help prevent both!

Selecting and storing
Almost all of the pomegranates you’ll find in grocery stores are the Wonderful variety. The season begins in October, and goes through January. Because pomegranates will not ripen off the tree, they are picked ripe, ready for consumption. Look for plump, round fruit with good color. Heavy fruit is a sign of lots of juice! Staff and I have cut into quite a few pomegranates out of curiosity, and found that some of the less desirable looking specimens have yielded some of the sweetest seed pips. My guess is these pomegranates were possibly more mature when picked, and had the opportunity to develop more sugar!

You can store your pomegranates in a cool, dry place for up to a month. The pith may dehydrate, and the fruit may feel soft, but the pips will be fine. In your refrigerator, you can store them safely for a couple of months. Place the seeds pips in an airtight container, and they’ll store in your freezer for up to a year.

Seeding and juicing
Whether juicing or eating, you’re trying to get at the seed pips. Pomegranates have a tough, almost leathery skin. Under the skin, is a tough pith; don’t eat or juice it. Within the pith, are five or so large chambers filled with the seed pips. The seed pips are protected within the chambers by a papery, white membrane.

There are many ways to go about getting at the tasty, sweet seed pips of the pomegranate. We’ve cut them in half and scooped them out with a small spoon. We’ve cut them into sections and eaten them like a section of citrus with the rind still on. Both work, kind of.
The most effective method to seed is this:

  • Remove the crown, about a quarter-inch down from the base.
  • Scoop out some of the core without disturbing the seeds.
  • Cut through the outer rind around the fruit in quarters.
  • Gently pull the sections apart and place them in a bowl of cool water
  • While in the water, gently separate the seeds from the membrane. The membrane will float to the top, and the seeds will sink to the bottom.
  • Remove the membrane, and use a sieve to drain the seed pips from the water
  • Done!
Juicing options:
  • A food mill will grind the juice from the seeds, leaving the seeds in the mill.
  • In a blender, you can pulse the seeds in short bursts and strain the juice thru a cheesecloth-lined strainer or sieve.
  • Cut the fruit in half crosswise, and ream as you would citrus fruit.
  • Using the palm of your hand, apply pressure to the fruit and roll it back and forth on a hard surface. When you no longer hear the seeds pips cracking, insert a straw and drink. This is probably the least effective method, but, if a straw’s all you’ve got to work with...

Word of Caution: Be careful. pomegranate juice stains!

And then, there’s the age old question, “Do I eat the seeds?” To each their own. They are entirely edible and a source of fiber. Many choose to suck the succulent arils from the seed pips, and spit the seed out. It’s entirely up to you.

What else can I do with pomegranates?
Pomegranate seeds can be eaten fresh on their own. As a garnish, their deep red color beautifully accents salads and a variety of dishes. Use the juice as a base for sauces, glaze, and savory dishes. Substitute pomegranate juice for citrus in your favorite marinades. Grenadine, the thick red syrup commonly used in cocktails, is made from pomegranates; try making your own!

I hope I’ve taken some of the mystery of the pomegranate away for you. Stop in the Co-op and give them a try! We should have a good supply well into December. Keep your eyes peeled for a red Bi-Weekly Special sign sometime in November. It’s peak season, and a wonderful time to give them a try.

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