For A Colourful Holiday Feast, Try Pomegranates
By: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
Wonderful to look at and delicious in taste, pomegranate seeds are heaven sent for festive occasions. The bright red seeds are ideal for garnishing the foods prepared for a holiday feast. In addition to their use an ingredient for almost all types of stuffing, they can be employed in the decoration of the majority of side dishes – from soups to dessert. Sparkling red, they not only add colour but also infuse an appetizing gusto to food.
In their mythology, the Greeks believed that the liquid obtained from the pomegranate seeds sprang from the blood of Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, and thereafter became the drink of the gods. The Koran mentions the pomegranate three times and Solomon sang of an ‘orchard of pomegranates’. As well, many peoples in the eastern lands have long believed that the juice of this historic fruit purged a person of envy and hatred.
Among the ancient civilizations of the Middle East, the pomegranate was a symbol of fertility. The Romans believed its ovules to be an aphrodisiac and labelled it the ‘love fruit’ and in Arabic folklore and poetry, the pomegranate blossom is often compared to the beautiful lips and cheeks of ladies and the fruit to the female breast.
It is believed that the pomegranate Punic granatum was first grown in Persia before the Christian era. From that country it spread eastward to China and westward to the lands bordering on the Mediterranean. In the countryside surrounding Carthage the fruit became so prevalent that the Romans who fell under its spell called it the ‘Carthaginian Apple’.
When the Arabs in the 8th century came to Europe, they introduced the plant into the Iberian Peninsula where, in the ensuing centuries, it was cultivated extensively. Ibn al-Awwan, a 12th century Arab agriculturalist in Moorish Spain, listed a dozen varieties thriving in all parts of Andalusia. A leftover from that age is the Portuguese name for pomegranate, roma, from the Arabic rumman.
The Spanish conquistadors brought the plant with them to the New World. However, it only thrived in the hot semi-arid parts of South America, Mexico and California. In subsequent years other adventurers and explorers dispersed it throughout the subtropical world, even as far away as Australia.
On the other hand, the cold climate of the northern parts of North America and Europe are not conducive to the cultivation of the pomegranate tree for its fruit. In these lands, it is planted solely for ornamental purposes. The bushy un-pruned trees with their brilliant small clusters of orange-red flowers make them extremely attractive as a hedge.
Pomegranate trees can be propagated from seed or cuttings and grow to a height of 3 to 6 m (10 to 20 ft). They take about seven years to fully mature and, if properly nurtured, continue to bear fruit for 30 years. However, if they are not pruned and shaped into a tree they will grow into bushes bearing little fruit.
Pomegranates are bright coloured and range in hue from pinkish to purple-red. When newly picked they have a fresh appearance and defuse a fragrant odour. In most cases they are wholesome looking, about the size of a large orange – being exceptionally free of disease when compared to other fruits. The choicest are a bright reddish colour with a thin leathery skin. Inside, they are filled with a myriad of large red seeds that appear like masses of scarlet berries embedded in a translucent slightly pinkish pulp.
An excellent autumn fruit, pomegranates are picked before they are fully mature. However, they continue to ripen in cold storage where they will keep in excellent condition for long periods of time.
Depending on size, each fruit contains from 60 to 160 calories, but is fat and cholesterol free. Although about 80% of the bulk is water, pomegranates also contain vitamin C, a healthy dose of fibre, most of the body’s daily potassium needs, and a little iron and protein.
In a number of countries in Asia and North Africa there are numerous healing qualities attributed to the products of the pomegranate tree. The roots, skin and seeds are employed to ease liver congestion and arthritis, purify the blood, alleviate heart pain, soothe coughs, and as an anti-bacterial agent in relieving stomach ailments, especially dysentery.
The employment of this fruit for medical purposes is only one side of the coin. Its use in the preparation of food is much more prevalent. Only the seeds covered with a transparent gel are edible. These can be eaten raw, sprinkled as a garnish or utilized as an ingredient in foods.
Every place where the pomegranate is found, the seeds are employed to garnish salads and a number of desserts. They are especially tantalizing when sprinkled on ice cream. Besides giving a bright adornment to these foods, they also add a pleasant savoury flavour. In the Middle Eastern lands the fresh seeds are also utilized in stuffing for both vegetables and meats, while in India they are dried and employed in all types of cooking.
From the pomegranate gel is obtained a sweet tangy crimson liquid that is, at times, scented with rose or orange blossom water to make a tasty and refreshing drink. The juice can be easily removed from the ovules by placing a cupful in a piece of muslin cloth and squeezing out the fluid.
From the days of remote antiquity, for the people of the Middle East and the Mediterranean countries, there is no more refreshing drink on a hot summer day than that made from the juice of this fruit. In these lands, there is nothing more longingly remembered by a thirsty traveller in the heat of summer, than a cool invigorating drink made from the liquid of the pomegranate.
Rich in pectin, the juice is employed in the preparation of many food gels. In Europe and North America grenadine syrup is made from the liquid, then usually mixed with sweeteners and artificial flavours and utilized as a base for drinks. In the Middle Eastern countries, a similar molasses-like concentrate called dibs rumman, prepared by boiling the juice until it becomes thick and turns brownish, is employed in everyday cooking.
A fine replacement for lemon juice, this condensed juice is used to make drinks or to give soups, stews and sauces a pleasing and somewhat tart taste. The taste of ground meat, utilized in pies, stuffing and barbecues, are always enhanced with a little of this concentrate.
North Americans, to a great extent, have not yet learned to appreciate the joys of this elegant product of nature. Perhaps, the difficulty of getting at the ovules helps in retarding the spread of pomegranate consumption. However, more likely, the unfamiliarity of pomegranates to non-Mediterranean peoples has retarded its spread in the Western culinary world. This could be quickly remedied if one should see a holiday feast made appetizing by the shimmering red seeds of the pomegranate.
- The extraction of the seeds, even if to the uninitiated is at times messy, is simple to the ones familiar with the fruit. To remove the seeds, press and roll the pomegranate by hand on a hard surface, then remove the stem with the surrounding pulp. Slightly score the outer skin with a sharp knife from top to bottom into four equal parts, then brake open and remove the ovules.
- Dibs rumman can be found in Middle Eastern food outlets all across Western Europe and North America.
- In North America, pomegranate juice is rarely sold, but in late summer and autumn when pomegranates are plentiful, fresh pomegranate juice can be frozen and used at a later date.
- Pomegranates can be refrigerated for an entire month. The seeds can be frozen if packed tightly in an airtight container and will keep for up to six months. If frozen, the seeds will be fine for use in cooking at a later date, but they lose some of their bright colour.
- When purchasing pomegranates, pick a bright coloured fruit that feels heavy for its size and has blemish-free skin.