I ate my first pomegranate at Grandma's the fall I turned five.

When she pulled the leathery fruit from her refrigerator, I wasn't impressed. When she cut it open to reveal the shining rubies inside, I was enthralled. One mouthful and I was hooked: the seeds were cool and smooth on my tongue; crushing them with my teeth drenched my mouth with their sweet-tart juice. I munched the crunchy bit of seed that was left, swallowed and reached out for more.

The history of the fruit was lost on me when I was little--I loved it for its sensory pleasures. Later, I learned how some believed a pomegranate and not an apple to be the fateful fruit Eve plucked from the tree. Even Greek mythology describes how Persephone had to marry Hades and spend part of each year with him, creating winter, because she nibbled on pomegranate seeds in the underworld.

Good Old King Solomon was fond of them, too, and had a grove of pomegranates--some attributed his wisdom to their consumption. They're also a worldwide symbol of fertility and abundance (with all those seeds it's no wonder). Pomegranates are well named: the word means "apple of many seeds."

Today, I eat pomegranates as a celebrational treat that reminds me of grandma's house and the first cool breezes of fall.

Pomegranates have been eaten for at least 3,000 years, but their origin is uncertain, since ancient references to the fruit have been found all over the Middle and Near East. Today, they influence a wide reach of cuisines: Middle Eastern, Asian, Indian, Jewish and American Southern.

The flavor of the seeds is difficult to describe other than to say they are sweet, tart, and deliciously different. Pomegranates have a unique flavor because they are a unique fruit. How unique? It has its own botanical family, Punicaceae, there's only one genus in that family, Punica, and only one species, P. granatum. Folks in the Middle East can enjoy a number of varieties with seeds ranging from light pink to deep red. In the US, you'll mostly find "Wonderful," a red-seeded variety.

Southerners and others in the Sun Belt can enjoy homegrown pomegranates, although California supplies most sold in the US. They grow on attractive small trees that produce vibrant orange blooms in spring. The fruits are borne starting in fall and are available from the first few weeks of September through December.

When shopping, choose a pomegranate heavy for its size--it will have the juiciest seeds. Pomegranates range from baseball to softball-sized. The skin should be leathery and mostly red, with the dull glow of a hand-rubbed finish. Whole pomegranates will keep refrigerated for three to four weeks; the seeds freeze well.

The seeds glow like little jewels, but beware. That glow comes from the juice, which stains whatever it comes in contact with--it was used as the traditional red dye for Persian rugs--so wear old clothes (preferably dark red ones) when working with pomegranates.

Getting to the seeds without smashing them is fun, but it's work. Here's the easiest way I've found: first, make four longitudinal (up and down) cuts through the skin only, like you were scoring it to quarter it, which, not coincidentally, is what you are doing. Next dig your fingers into the cracks you just cut and with lots of grunting and muscle flexing, pull the fruit in half and then into quarters. Some seeds will burst in this process; it's inevitable. (You ARE wearing those old clothes, aren't you?) Once the fruit is broken open, it's just a matter of pulling the seeds from the inedible membranes and eating them.

There are other uses for the seeds than just gobbling them as fast as you can get them out. They're terrific in this fruit salad--try it as a light dessert.

Apple, Walnut and Pomegranate Salad

  • 2 tablespoons orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 2 cups chopped apples
  • 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
  • 1/2 cup walnut halves
  • 1/4 cup shaved Romano cheese

Stir together the orange juice and honey, then toss that with the apples. Gently stir in the pomegranate seeds, the walnuts and the cheese and serve chilled or at room temperature.

You can use the fresh or bottled juice in vinaigrettes. This one is a refreshing change.

Pomegranate Vinaigrette

  • 1/4 cup pomegranate juice
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 cup of light oil (sunflower, peanut)

Combine all the ingredients, shake well and drizzle over your favorite greens. This vinaigrette is especially good with fuller bodied ones like spinach and radicchio.

The seeds, pomegranate juice and molasses are all great with pork--the molasses makes a terrific glaze for ham or pork tenderloin. For ham, just brush it on during the last half hour of baking. With the tenderloin, coat it before broiling or grilling.

You can buy the juice and pomegranate molasses in Middle Eastern and Asian stores and some natural foods markets. If you're fortunate enough to have a bounty of pomegranates, fresh juice squeezed from the seeds makes a refreshing drink when sweetened.

You can either put the seeds in a jelly bag or cheesecloth and squeeze out the juice or drink the juice right out of the fruit. To try that, roll the fruit on the counter top, pressing hard enough to burst the seeds, then then poke a hole near the top and insert a straw.

You can even make your own grenadine by simmering equal parts of sugar and pomegranate juice for five minutes.

For me, getting the seeds out is half the fun, but some people complain that pomegranates are too much trouble and they just won't eat them.

I don't mind: that just means more stained fingers, lips and delicious pomegranate seeds for me.

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