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A&E >  Food

Pomegranate seeds pack a festive punch

Palouse caviar. (Sylvia Fountaine)
Palouse caviar. (Sylvia Fountaine)

As fall turns into winter and everything outside begins to look colorless and bleak, the earth brings us an unexpected package – cheery and festive and filled with the jewels of winter.

When you look at a pomegranate, you can’t help notice its vibrant scarlet hue and thick smooth skin. The fruit feels surprisingly heavy. Elegantly shaped, cloaked in red and topped with a turreted crown, pomegranates seem almost regal. It’s not hard to imagine them among royalty.

Pomegranates are believed to be one of the oldest cultivated fruits. They have been recorded throughout history in the ancient texts of Babylonia, the Bible, Homeric Hymns and the Quran. They appear in Greek mythology, on Egyptian papyrus, in Tang Dynasty characters and ancient Armenian writings – celebrated in myth, art, medicine and religion as a symbol of abundance and posterity.

Originating in Persia and the Himalayas, pomegranates became popular in Middle Eastern civilizations because they provided sustenance for long journeys across hot deserts. They eventually migrated to Russia, India and Mediterranean countries and as far east as China and Southeast Asia via the Silk Road.

Their name comes from the Latin meaning “seeded apple.” Some believe a pomegranate was the first apple, the one that caught Eve’s eye, in the book of Genesis. Throughout history, pomegranates seem to be revered – linked to health, fertility and rebirth. They were carved on the pillars of Solomon’s temple, buried in tombs with Egyptian kings and depicted in the art of Zen temples.

It was the Spanish who brought them to the Americas in the 1500s. Eventually, they migrated to California and Texas, where they were planted around missions by Franciscan monks. In the late 1800s, a farmer brought pomegranate cuttings from Florida to California and began propagating them. Because they were sweeter and juicier than the others, he aptly named it the Wonderful variety. Grown primarily in Central California, Wonderful pomegranates thrive in the hot days and cool nights of the San Joaquin Valley and are in season October through January. These are the pomegranates we most often see in our stores.

Inside their thick skin are hundreds of gem-like, garnet-colored seeds, called arils, ingeniously held in place with a papery white membrane for safekeeping. Their natural packaging is quite brilliant, when you consider it.

And it is that thought I try to keep with me as I perform the laborious task of separating the seeds from the membrane. It can be time-consuming and messy, but the end reward – the intensely sweet, tart, refreshing flavor – is worth the effort.

There are numerous ways to seed a pomegranate, but I’ve found the the easiest, cleanest way is under water. Fill a large bowl with cool water. Slice off the crown and gently score the skin from top to bottom into quarters, vertically, careful not to cut into the seeds. Immerse the pomegranate in a bowl of cool water and gently pry open the fruit to free the arils. Start separating the seeds from the rind and the membrane and you will notice the seeds will sink and the membrane will float. Once all the wedges are cleaned out, strain out the membrane and rind, using your fingers or a small strainer, then drain the water.

The seeds’ uses in the kitchen are endless. Toss them into kale or grain salads for added color and a sweet-tart burst of flavor. Add them to holiday cocktails for a festive twist. Top chocolaty desserts with their bright and tangy seeds, or simply swirl them into your morning yogurt. Vegetable dishes love to be adorned by pomegranate seeds, and heavier meaty dishes benefit from a dollop of fresh and bright pomegranate salsa.

Not only are they delicious, they are packed with nutrients, powerful antioxidants and vitamins that have been shown to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, stimulate the immune system, reduce inflammation and reduce the risk of heart disease. There is even talk that they slow down the aging process.

When selecting pomegranates, do so by weight, not by color. Pomegranates are usually picked when they are perfectly ripe on the inside. The outside of a ripe pomegranate can vary from pink to a deep ruby red. Keep in mind that the heavier the pomegranates are, the more juice they contain. You can also purchase pomegranate seeds that have been removed from the skin for you, if crunched for time.

It’s possible to freeze pomegranate arils, by spreading them in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with wax paper. Place them in a freezer for two hours or until frozen, and transfer to a resealable plastic bag or container. Frozen arils can be enjoyed well after the season has ended.

You can also purchase pomegranate juice – rich and tart, uber nutritious and very versatile in the kitchen. Add it to vinaigrettes, simmer it down with sugar into a beautiful syrup to spoon over ice cream or desserts or add to cocktails, or simmer it down with stock and aromatics to create a glaze for beef or lamb.

For a festive holiday punch, simply mix pomegranate juice with sparkling water, a few rosemary sprigs, orange juice and slices of orange. Keep it nonalcoholic or spike it with gin.

Palouse Caviar

3 cups cooked lentils (black caviar or french green)

1 1/2 cups cooked beets, peeled, diced

1 cup pomegranate seeds

1 cup chopped cilantro (tender stems OK)

1/2 cup finely diced red onion

1/2 a jalapeno, very finely diced

1/3 cup olive oil

1 lime, zest and juice

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon coriander

3/4 teaspoon salt

Corn chips or tortilla chips, for scooping

Crumbled feta, for garnish (optional)

Place first 6 ingredients in a medium bowl and toss to mix. Add olive oil, lime juice and zest, spices and salt. Stir to combine and allow this to sit 10 minutes for the salt to soak into the lentils. Top with crumbed feta, if using. Serve with corn or tortilla chips.

Yield: 10 to 12 appetizer servings

Pomegranate Quinoa Avocado Salad

4 cups cooked quinoa

1 cup pomegranate seeds

4 chopped scallions

1 cup chopped Italian parsley

1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds

1/2 orange, zest and juice

1/3 cup olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste

1/4 teaspoon cracked pepper

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1 to 2 chopped avocados

Place cooked quinoa, pomegranate seeds, scallions, parsley and almonds in a medium bowl. Toss with olive oil, orange juice and zest, salt and spices. Taste and adjust salt. Gently fold in the avocado.

Yield: 6 servings

Fesenjan, or Syrian Chicken, Pomegranate and Walnut Stew

3 cups yellow onion, diced

2 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1/4 cup pomegranate molasses (see note)

2 cups walnut halves, toasted, ground

2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs cut into 2-inch pieces, patted dry and salted (or use whole, bone-in, skin-on thighs)

2 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons honey

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

3 to 4 cups cooked rice or naan

Chopped Italian parsley and pomegranate seeds, garnish

Pat dry chicken and generously salt.

Heat a large Dutch oven or heavy bottom skillet over medium heat add 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter. Over medium heat, brown chicken on all sides, then set aside. Drain fat from the pan, add onions to the same pan, adding oil if necessary. Cook onions over medium heat until soft, stirring occasionally.

Add chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and add pomegranate molasses, honey, turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and walnuts. Nestle chicken back into the sauce, and simmer on low, covered for 45 to 60 minutes stirring every 15 minutes, until chicken is fall-apart tender and sauce has thickened.

Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Garnish with pomegranate seeds and parsley. Serve with rice or with naan.

Note: If you can’t find pomegranate molasses, make your own by pouring 1 cup pomegranate juice into a small pot with a 1/4 cup sugar. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, add a pinch of salt and 1 tablespoon lemon juice and simmer for 45 minutes until reduced by half. Set aside to cool.

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home,

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