Any fruit that symbolizes death on the one hand and hope, fertility and abundance on the other must be something special. And the pomegranate is.
This remarkable-looking berry -- about the size and shape of an orange -- has inspired poets, artists and chefs through the centuries. Its thin, leathery, red-brown skin peels away to reveal a honeycomb of white seeds encased in a crimson, sweet-sour flesh.
The pomegranate even belongs to a botanical family of its own, )) the Punicacca, and is the only member of its genus. Classified as Punica granatum, the name pomegranate literally means apple with many seeds.
Carbonized remains of this fruit native to Asia have been dated to the Bronze Age. Today pomegranates are cultivated in all tropical and subtropical climates. Both sweet and tart as well as a seedless variety are known in other parts of the world, but in the United States there is only the large, sweet, heavy Red Wonderful, in season from September through December. Refrigerated, the Red Wonderful remains fresh for weeks, and its seeds can be frozen.
Mostly, we eat pomegranates raw. But this fruit is more than just a novelty dessert. In the Middle East, soups and dried bean dishes gain a tangy flavor from pomegranates. Indians in the Punjab use them to perk up lentil dishes and in samosa fillings and rice puddings. Powdered dried pomegranate adds a sweet-sour taste and a rich color to Indian vegetable dishes.
In France, pomegranates are favored for syrup (grenadine), jellies and sherbets. Italians and other Europeans use the juice to baste poultry and meats. Russians and Iranians make a poultry dish garnished with pomegranates and walnuts.
The ancient Greeks believed pomegranates sprang from the blood of the wine god Dionysus, and they immortalized the fruit in the story of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone, the maiden of the spring. Demeter prevented the crops from growing after Hades, the god of the underworld, kidnapped her beloved daughter.
To save the human race, Zeus demanded the release of Persephone from death's hold but Hades forced her to eat a pomegranate seed to ensure that she would return to him some day. Still grieving, Demeter agreed to restore the earth's plenty if her daughter would be forced to live with Hades only four months out of the year -- the winter.
Through this story the pomegranate came to be associated with death, hope, fertility and abundance.
Peel fruit and place seeds in a blender. Process 1 minute. Strain through a cheesecloth. Makes about 1 cup of juice.
1/2 cup pomegranate syrup (grenadine) or 2 cups pomegranate juice
3 ounces fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon orange blossom water
1 bottle seltzer
3 tablespoons vodka or gin, optional
sugar, to taste
Combine pomegranate syrup or juice with lemon juice, orange blossom water and seltzer in a pitcher. Add vodka or gin and sugar. Serves four.
POULTRY IN POMEGRANATE SAUCE
1 4-pound duck or chicken, cut up
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup butter or oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 cup ground walnuts
1/2 cup fresh pomegranate juice
2 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon sugar or to taste
pomegranate seeds and walnut halves for garnish
Season duck or chicken with salt and pepper. Melt 1/4 cup butter or oil in a large skillet. Add poultry and saute until brown and almost tender. Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan. Add chopped onion and saute until golden. Stir in ground walnuts, pomegranate juice and broth. Cook, stirring, until sauce thickens. Stir in sugar. Add poultry pieces, cover and simmer 1/2 hour or until tender. To serve, place poultry on a platter. Spoon sauce over top and garnish with pomegranate seeds and walnut halves. Serve with rice. Serves four. Adapted from "A Book of Middle Eastern Cooking" by Claudia Roden (Vintage, 1972).