Pomegranates were my favorite interactive eating experience when I was a child. They were the fruit that fought back, leaving me streaked and spattered in scarlet juice. It was almost as fun as finger painting. I would crack open the leathery red skin, freeing the ruby seeds that tasted like tart raspberries, crunched like corn nuts and stained as badly as beets. They arrived in the market about the same time school started in the fall, and I didn’t dare go near one until I was in my after-class clothes. My Keds weren’t completely broken in until they had pomegranate drips on the white rubber toes.
Around fifth or sixth grade, I left pomegranates behind with the other messy delights of childhood, such as triple-decker ice cream cones and pitted jumbo black olives nibbled off my fingertips.
Recently, while exploring Southern California’s Middle Eastern and farmers markets, I’ve rediscovered the pomegranate’s more mature possibilities.
For a fruit that is considered kid’s stuff or confined to floral displays, it’s got quite a history. Pomegranates are believed to have originated in Iran and are one of the first fruits cultivated by man, sometime between 4,000 and 3,000 BC. With their wealth of seeds, it’s hardly a wonder they spread throughout the world, becoming part of Greek, Roman, European and Asian legend and cuisine. They are mentioned in ancient myths and the Bible and are a symbol of fertility and hope. The French call them grenades, the same term used for small bombs, and make them into the syrup grenadine.
The Spanish brought them to the New World, and California is the only producer of the country’s commercial crop. Available fresh in markets from September through December, they’re best when they are heavy in the hand and looking less than terrific. Their skin should be dull, with a bronze overlay, and splitting. That’s when they are ripe and literally bursting with their juicy, pulp-enshrouded seeds.
In the fall, at farmers markets in Beverly Hills and Hollywood, Sherrill Orchards features fresh juice, as well as the fruit. Pomegranates can be found year round in Middle Eastern markets in the form of bottled juice, syrup and molasses, a condensed, dark and viscous substance that can add a tart kick to marinades, sauces, soups and stews.
And in this, my second pomegranate childhood, I’ve discovered a faster and far more fastidious way to clean the fresh fruit. Cut off both ends and score the skin lengthwise without cutting through to the seeds. Next, hold the fruit immersed in a bowl of water and break it open in sections, separating the seeds from the bitter white membrane, which floats to the water’s surface. The seeds can be kept in a bowl to eat by hand or spoonful like caviar or thrown into a salad for a bright crunch. They can also be whirled in a blender and strained for juice.
Walnuts and pomegranates are traditionally combined in Middle Eastern cooking for such dishes as muhammara, an appetizer dip, and the hunter’s stew from Azerbaijan called fesenjan, the recipe for a version of which follows.
Like many adult pleasures, it’s rich, satisfying and safe to eat in your best clothes.
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Chicken with Walnut and Pomegranate Sauce
Fesenjan can be made also with duck (roasted or fried), quail, cubed lamb or meatballs. Serve with rice pilaf or saffron rice.
1 21/2- to 3-pound chicken, cut into small pieces
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
4 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped fine
2 cups ground walnuts
2 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons (or to taste) pomegranate molasses
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Dry chicken. Season with salt, pepper. In large, heavy skillet, heat butter over moderate heat. Brown chicken evenly. Set aside on plate. Saute onion until golden brown. Mix in walnuts, add chicken broth, pomegranate molasses (see Resource Guide), lemon juice, cinnamon and salt and pepper to taste. Blend well, bring to boil over high heat, reduce heat to low, simmer 10 minutes. Taste and add sugar if desired. Return chicken to pan and baste with sauce. Cover and simmer 30 minutes or until chicken is tender and cooked through. Skim fat from sauce. * Food stylist: Christine Anthony-Masterson