Pomegranate Pleasures

Intense, tart-sweet pomegranate seeds contain the very snap of fall, but they don't yield their virtues easily. Obtaining the crunchy, crimson tear-shaped seeds is fairly easy, but fairly messy too. It helps to pull the fruit apart underwater in a pot or basin; the membranes float, the seeds sink and any splattering is diluted and contained.

Pomegranate juice is more difficult and time-consuming to extract but worth it, especially if you have a surplus of back-yard fruit. (California grows the great majority of the nation's pomegranates, and many back yards have a thriving bush or two.) It takes about five pomegranates to yield one cup of juice.

In the fall, it's possible to find fresh pomegranate juice at farmers markets or advertised in the classified sections of rural newspapers. Fresh pomegranate juice is wonderfully complex, at once sweet and puckery, intense and wine-like; it makes an excellent base for gelatins, sorbets and ice cream or it can be reduced to a sweet, full-bodied syrup for pancakes, drinks or basting.

Pomegranate juice can be further reduced to pomegranate molasses, a Middle Eastern specialty I learned about from reading Paula Wolfert's "The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean."

Wolfert recommends the Cortas brand, which is widely available in local Middle Eastern markets. The molasses' sharp, clear, fruity flavor wakes up everything it touches--salads, meat, poultry, fish.

For the past few weeks, I've been cooking with pomegranates, with the fresh seeds, with juice from the farmer's market and with Cortas molasses. Here are a few recipes--some from Paula Wolfert, some that I developed--using pomegranates at various strengths, all to excellent and surprising effect.

ROLLED BREAST OF CHICKEN GLAZED WITH POMEGRANATE This recipe comes from Paula Wolfert's "Cooking From the Eastern Mediterranean." Pomegranate molasses--known as dibs rumman in Arabic and rob-e anar in Persian--is a sweet-sour cooking ingredient, far different from the sugary grenadine syrup used in mixing cocktails. It's available in most Middle Eastern markets. If you have a surfeit of pomegranates, or pomegranate juice, you can make the molasses yourself with the accompanying recipe.

The molasses distills the intensity of pomegranates to a fever pitch. A dash of it cranks up the flavor of salad dressings, marinades, fresh fruits. A man I know says pomegranate juice is the balsamic vinegar of the future.

4 boneless chicken breast halves (2 1/2 pounds)

1/4 pound fresh unsalted mozzarella

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon hot Hungarian paprika

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium red onion

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup pomegranate seeds

Cilantro sprigs

Flat-leaf parsley

Remove and reserve chicken skin. Place chicken breasts between pieces of wax paper and pound to even 1/4-inch thickness.

Cut cheese into finger-sized pieces.

Place chicken breasts, boned side up, on work surface and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Place cheese down center of each breast, sprinkle each with 1/8 teaspoon paprika, then roll each breast tightly into sausage shape. Cover open side of each roll with 1/4 of reserved skin. Tie rolls securely with string at 1-inch intervals. Be sure that cheese is entirely enclosed.

Brush chicken rolls all over with oil, set on flat dish, wrap in plastic and refrigerate until 45 minutes before serving.

Meanwhile, cut onion in thin slices, and separate slices into rings. Rinse onion under cool running water and squeeze dry. Set aside until ready to serve. (Up to this point, dish may be prepared many hours in advance.)

Bring chicken to room temperature and brush chicken with pomegranate molasses and then mayonnaise. Broil or grill chicken pieces 6 to 7 inches from heat, basting often with pan juices and turning often. Cook until juices run clear when pierced with skewer, about 12 minutes. Remove from heat.

Let rolls rest 5 minutes before slicing. Untie strings and cut each roll on slight diagonal into 6 slices. Arrange slices, cut-side-up, on serving platter. Sprinkle with any pan juices and serve at once, garnished with onion rings, pomegranate seeds and sprigs of cilantro and parsley.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

495 calories; 439 mg sodium; 128 mg cholesterol; 29 grams fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 44 grams protein; 0.22 gram fiber.

RIBS BASTED WITH POMEGRANATE AND RED PEPPER SAUCE

Reading Wolfert's book, I was introduced not only to pomegranate molasses but to Middle Eastern red pepper sauce, another memorable relish that is sold locally in many Middle Eastern markets. Pomegranate molasses and this thick bottled pepper sauce--really a paste--make a terrific marinade for meats. I put the two together to create this dish of my own. The first bite of these ribs invariably provokes a response along the lines of "Oh! Tart!" But wait. Soon enough, the very tartness will prove addictive.

2 racks of lamb or pork back ribs, approximately 1 pound each, cut into separate rib pieces

Water

1 stick cinnamon, optional

5 cloves, optional

3 to 5 whole allspice, optional

1/4 cup pomegranate molasses

1/4 cup red pepper sauce

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Place ribs in stockpot. Cover with water, add cinnamon, cloves and allspice and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 1 hour.

Combine pomegranate molasses, red pepper sauce, olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.

Remove ribs from water, drain and place in a roasting pan. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Brush on pomegranate sauce. Bake at 300 degrees, basting every 20 minutes or so until caramelized but not dry, about 1 hour.

Makes 2 servings for dinner, 4 or more as an appetizer.

Each appetizer serving contains about:

557 calories; 251 mg sodium; 90 mg cholesterol; 48 grams fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 17 grams protein; 0 fiber.

POMEGRANATE MOLASSES

The method is Paula Wolfert's, from her "Cooking From the Eastern Mediterranean."

6 cups fresh or bottled pomegranate juice

1 cup sugar

1 cup lemon juice

Place pomegranate juice, sugar and lemon juice in non-reactive saucepan over high heat and slowly reduce by boiling to 2 cups. Cool, bottle and refrigerate.

Makes 2 cups.

Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about:

85 calories; 3 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 0 grams fat; 22 grams carbohydrates; 1 grams protein; 0.17 fiber.

POMEGRANATE MOUSSE

This is essentially a fruit gelatin aerated by whipping cream. The cream smoothes out the pomegranate's tart, puckery edge, but fresh seeds kick it right back in.

1 1/2 packages unflavored gelatin

1/4 cup water

3 cups pomegranate juice

1/4 cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick

4 cloves

3 whole allspice

zest of 1/2 lemon

1 cup whipping cream

Seeds from 1 pomegranate

Soften gelatin in water in bowl.

Heat pomegranate juice in non-reactive saucepan with sugar, cinnamon stick, cloves, allspice and lemon zest. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer 2 to 3 minutes.

Dissolve softened gelatin in 1 cup boiling juice. Strain rest of juice into bowl and add dissolved gelatin mixture. Place bowl in larger bowl of ice water and set in refrigerator until almost set.

Beat whipping cream to stiff peaks. Pour over almost-set pomegranate gelatin and fold in until thoroughly combined. Pour into individual molds or 1 large mold and chill until set, about 2 hours. Unmold and serve sprinkled with plenty of fresh pomegranate seeds.

Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

246 calories; 21 mg sodium; 55 mg cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 27 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.21 gram fiber.

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Kitchen Tip

At this time of year, it's possible to find freshly pressed pomegranate juice at local certified farmers markets for about $6.50 a half gallon. If you have tried to make your own juice, you will know this is a bargain.

On the other hand, you can make your own. Here are two methods, both splattery, so use gloves:

* Method 1: Roll a whole pomegranate on a counter until it is soft as a ripe persimmon. Then cut the fruit open and squeeze the juice through a sieve into a bowl.

* Method 2: Cut the fruit in half and remove the seeds. Place the seeds in a cheesecloth and squeeze out the juice with gloved hands. One dozen very large pomegranates should produce two cups of juice.

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