The pomegranate is a curious culinary pleasure, not related to any other fruit but cherished in several cultures for thousands of years. In Middle Eastern and Asian cuisine, the fruit is featured in classic savory dishes such as Persian duck in pomegranate sauce. In the United States, pomegranates are typically prized for their juice.
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Originally from Iran and India, pomegranates have a long-reaching history. They are mentioned in the Old Testament and Talmud, and appear among the tomb carvings of Egyptian pharaohs. In Greek mythology, the pomegranate was referred to as the fruit of the dead, capable of confining a person to the underworld. The fruit's thirst-quenching properties and long storage life secured a spot on desert trading caravans, but it was the Spanish who brought the fruit to California in 1769. Because pomegranates grow predominantly in hot, dry climates, they are mainly found in California and Arizona in the United States. The trees can live as long as 200 years.
Pomegranates have a thin, leathery skin crowned by a tough, leafy calyx. The best ones are about the size of a large orange and should feel heavy, with a shiny skin and no soft patches. When ripe, they make a metallic sound when they are tapped. Scoring and peeling away the skin reveals dozens of ruby-colored edible seeds -- encased in a bitter-tasting pulp -- which have a sweet but slightly sour flavor. The easiest way to liberate the seeds is to cut the pomegranate into halves and pull apart the sections over a bowl of water. The seeds will sink, while the inedible rind and pulp will float. In the United States, pomegranate season runs from September to December, but the fruits can be stored in the refrigerator for as long as two months. The seeds actually become sweeter and juicier during storage.
Pomegranate seeds, which can be eaten straight from the fruit, contain twice as many antioxidants as blackberries. Halve the fruit and press it like an orange to yield a pink, pulp-free juice, then strain the juice to remove the unpalatably bitter pulp. The juice makes a worthy replacement for cranberry in cocktails, but it can also be reduced to make a syrup and is one of the key ingredients in Grenadine. Use thick pomegranate molasses as a substitute for Balsamic vinegar in salad dressings. In Greek cuisine, simmered pomegranate juice makes a smooth glaze for kebabs, while Indian cookery features dried pomegranate seeds in savory dishes and chutneys. Fresh pomegranate seeds make a zesty salsa for chicken, duck or pork, along with fresh red pepper, or roasted with vegetables drizzled in maple syrup.
While most pomegranates are reddish in color, they are found in white, yellow and green varieties around the globe. Although the juice contains lots of staining tannins, the pith is used in India as a toothpaste and the rind to treat parasites. Culturally, the pomegranate is a potent symbol of prosperity and fertility. At Greek and Turkish weddings, the bride throws or breaks a pomegranate on the ground for good luck, while in Persian tradition, offering a basket of pomegranates invites a prosperous future. In China, too, giving a picture of a ripe, open pomegranate is auspicious. As a common Middle Eastern fruit, the pomegranate is central to numerous Jewish festivals, most notably during Rosh Hashanah.