Pomegranate power

We are lucky to live in an age of pomegranates. It may not roll off the tongue like the Age of Aquarius, but last I checked you can’t eat an Aquarius. With more pomegranates being grown and consumed than ever before in the history of the world, the inevitable pomegranate renaissance is upon us. And we can begin enjoying the fruits of it immediately.

In California, the pomegranate harvest is in full swing. About 95 percent of the crop is the large, dark variety called Wonderful. California’s 2017 yield is expected to be a bit light, as the trees recover from a multi-year drought. But while yields will be down, the quality of the fruit is expected to be high, as sometimes happens with fruit trees. Expect California pomegranates to be larger, juicier and sweeter. But maybe not cheaper.

Worldwide, pomegranate consumption is on the rise for culinary and health reasons, and there is also demand from cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, all of which makes for attractive pricing on a fruit that grows by the hundreds on a healthy tree. The trees are low-maintenance, and can adapt to many conditions, including heat and drought. Such conditions that are becoming more common in many parts of the world, like in India, the number one producer of pomegranates, which continues to expand its pomegranate acreage by replacing dried up apple orchards with pomegranates. Spain and Italy have invested big in recent years as well, aiming to feed a growing European demand, while China has invested the most, including large plantations of soft seeded Tunisian pomegranates, destined mostly for Asia.

In Kenya, a young farmer named Jehoshaphat Yegon started growing pomegranates in 2005, when his father gave him a gift of three seedlings. On a school trip in 2009, Yegon saw Indian pomegranates for sale at a market for about 4 US dollars each.

“It dawned on me I was sitting on a gold mine,” Yegon told Kenya’s Daily Nation. He got to work expanding his orchard, which now occupies a half-acre and has 140 trees, including 40 from seeds he germinated from his original trees. With seedlings available for less than the price of a pomegranate fruit, Yegon plans to expand to two full acres, and to grow other crops between the pomegranate trees.

While entering new landscapes, like California, Spain and Kenya, pomegranates are an ancient fruit with a a deep history in Central Asia, Persia, the Middle East and the Caucuses. Cookbook author Feride Buyuran is from Azerbaijan, which is like being from all of those places at once. From an early age, she told me by email, she saw pomegranates everywhere.

“In front yards, in backyards, and randomly even in parks. They’re cheaper than apples,” she says. “There are dozens of pomegranate varieties, some sweet, others tangy, some with dark ruby arils, others with light pink and even white.”

The arils, of course, are the fleshy seeds inside that tough-skinned, angular sphere. And there are many ways to get them out. A peeled pomegranate looks like the world’s biggest and most delicious freshly cut jewel, but takes a little work. Buyuran’s website, azcookbook.com, has a video in which she demonstrates how to quickly remove the arils by cutting along the membranes that run between the arils, rather than through them. She then swats the arils from their clingy membranes with a wooden spoon, making it look so easy. Alas, I usually end up clawing it apart with my fingers and dumping the arils in a bowl of water so the membranes float out. But I don’t try to remove every last shred, as the membranes are where a many of the fruit’s potentially medicinal compounds reside.

Buyuran has also posted a recipe or a dish called narnumru, from her new book Pomegranates and Saffron, a culinary journey to Azerbaijan. It’s basically fried eggs atop fried pomegranate arils, which burst open in the pan’s heat and steam the egg sunny side up in the covered pan. It’s a shocking dish, both visually and intellectually. But in your mouth, it all makes perfect sense.

She starts with a half-cup chopped onion in a pan with butter and a little olive oil. When the onions are translucent, she adds two cups of arils (for two eggs), and fries them for a few minutes, before cracking the eggs on top, and covering briefly. If you have a glass lid you can watch the eggs turn white before your eyes in the pomegranate steam.

Everyone in my house thought the idea of frying eggs on pomegranate arils would be awful — even those who professed to love both pomegranate and egg. “It makes me queasy,” my wife said. “It will be disgusting,” my son concluded, ahead of the experiment.

I made a batch, personalized with bacon and browned bits of deer meat prior to the addition of onions. The haters were all wrong, of course. And they never got to find out how wrong they were, because I ate it all.

Then I began stir-frying meat with pomegranate seeds, onions and garlic, while playing around with various spice mixtures from pomegranate country. Egyptian dukkah was a standout.

Soon enough, I was marinading meat in pomegranate juice, as Buyuran told me she does with kebabs. If you don’t have venison then any red meat, especially a strong flavored meat like lamb or goat, is wonderful in a pomegranate juice marinade.

Buyuran also adds pomegranate juice to meat stew. Plain juice only, she emphasizes, unsweetened. Back home, she says, “the fresh juice is simmered for long hours to obtain pomegranate molasses, or nasharab, a prized condiment that is particularly enjoyed with grilled fish.” As it happens, I have a jar of pomegranate molasses in the fridge that I use for dipping shrimp.

By far, the simplest way to cook with pomegranate is to make what you are going to make, and then sprinkle fresh pomegranate seeds on it. Don’t buy the seeds prepackaged; get them out yourself. Sprinkle them on salad, soup, meat, rice, breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and see what works. There is no end to the ways we can use that bright juicy tang, balancing the fat in food with a burst of acid. In much the same way that a sip of coffee helps eggs, and wine helps prime rib, a pomegranate helps both. A handful belongs atop a bowl of linguini with creamy mushroom sauce, and on your morning Cheerios.

That’s why, once you jump on board the pomegranate train, you stay on. Wherever it goes.

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