Rich in vitamins C and K, a good source of fiber, and loaded with folic acid and antioxidants, pomegranates (and especially the juice of this leathery fruit) have surged in popularity in the last fifteen years. A favorite ingredient in everything from salads, desserts and soup to cocktails or even hair conditioner, the reputation of this “modern day” superfood as a staple of healthy living in the 21st century. Even as recently as the 1990s, many Americans were unfamiliar with this sweet-tart favorite. Thought to have been among the first cultivated fruits and revered in Middle Eastern culture since the Bronze Age, it makes you wonder why it took so long to catch on here in the United States.
Prominent in the art of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the pomegranate has historic significance as a symbol of health and life. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt were often buried with the fruit to ensure the path to rebirth. Along with citrus and peaches, Buddhists regard it as one of the three blessed fruits. In the Christian faith, the Virgin Mary is sometimes depicted holding a pomegranate. Moses speaks of pomegranates found in the Promised Land and some scholars even suggest the Bible intended the pomegranate, not the apple, to be the forbidden fruit with which Adam tempted Eve. The Jewish faith associates the pomegranate with righteousness and symbolically declares the seeds within to total 613 in honor of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah.
As a culinary element, it has been a staple of Middle Eastern cooking for centuries. Native to Persia (now Iran), the juice of the pomegranate was cooked down to a molasses and used as a healthy and vibrant flavoring in many spiced dishes, a practice that continues today.
The health benefits of this odd fruit have long been recognized in Middle Eastern culture, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that Western science acknowledged its value. Studies have shown it to hold a variety of significant dietary values, including cardiovascular health, a combatant of cancer and arthritis, an insulin stabilizer for those suffering from diabetes, and has even shown promise as an inhibitor of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s no coincidence that these studies coincide with the growing popularity of pomegranates in the American diet. In a culture where even fast food restaurants have adjusted their menus to accommodate an increasingly food-savvy market, the quest for products that satisfy both the palate and a healthy lifestyle squarely hits the mark with this old world superfood.
Although pomegranate juice is enjoyed all year long, the fruit itself is generally available in the cooler months, from September through February. A unique fruit, this grapefruit-sized wonder is composed of juicy seeds nestled haphazardly within membrane chambers.
Removing the seeds can be a challenge to the uninitiated, but can be easily removed using one of two methods. The first method is quartering the fruit by scoring it with a sharp knife and breaking it into quarters. The seeds can then be extracted by whacking the skin side of each segment with a wooden spoon to dislodge the seeds. The second method is submerging the fruit in water and gently working the seeds free by massaging with the fingertips (the seeds will sink in the water and the bits of membrane will float to the surface).
As evidenced by the hundreds of products available that incorporate this 4000 year old “modern discovery,” there are a myriad of ways to use this juicy delight. Until the season draws to a close, eating these succulent seeds by the handful is a good place to start.