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It’s easy to get seduced by the ruby-red seeds of the pomegranate, that leather-shelled fruit you can find in everything: juice, cocktails (think grenadine), salads and sweets. For ages, people have believed in the healing property of pomegranate juice, from the health-conscious folk of today to the ancient Egyptians who thought it helped fight intestinal worms. This fruit shows up in early drawings and mosaics and in Moorish architecture. It is one of the three blessed fruits in Buddhism and is all over the Bible (“In the Song of Solomon, the sexy passage about seduction,” says Louisa Shafia, chef, cookbook author and pomegranate connoisseur). Who knew such a hard-to-eat fruit could turn out to be not only interesting, but so precious worldwide?
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Where it’s from: The pomegranate, or Punica granatum, has a rich history both as a food and as an icon. Originally grown in Iran and the Himalayas, this fruit was one of the first to be cultivated, a feat archeologists believe to have happened around the early Bronze Age. When the food came to Rome in about 700 BC, it was referred to as the “Phoenician apple,” and became a symbol of marriage and fertility. Artworks by Sandro Botticelli and Raphael show this ruby orb along with the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, a sign, scholars say, of Christ’s resurrection. Then later, artists Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí all included the fruit in paintings of their own. The city of Granada was named after the pomegranate, and in 1896 the plant was sown in California for the first time. With all of these powerful instances of the pomegranate in history and myth, it’s no wonder modern day dieticians and food lovers have adopted this fruit.
When it’s in season: This cold-weather fruit grows in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres, which dictate its availability. In the North, you find them fresh from September to February. In the South they are harvested from March to May.
What to look for: Though the outside shell can be a vibrant red, the color doesn’t dictate the arils, those plush, crimson seeds nestled inside. Instead, choose fruits that are heavy for their size, and one that is free of blemishes or soft spots.
How to store it: You can keep a plucked pomegranate for about a week in room temperature, or almost a month if you put it in the refrigerator. After you have removed the seeds, they will keep in an air-tight bag in the freezer for approximately three months. Fresh juice and syrup should also be kept cold.
How to prepare it: The best trick for getting the precious arils out of the shell is simple, says Shafia. “Starting at the crown, score the skin all the way around the fruit, then break it open into two halves,” she says. “Hold the fruit over a large bowl, cut side down in your palm, and whack it with a heavy spoon to make the seeds come out. Pour in cold water to submerge the seeds, agitate with your hands, and pour off any pith that floats to the top.” After that, you should strain the seeds and eat them plain by the handful, in a salad or garnished on top of main dish. Shafia also suggests juicing the seeds and cooking the liquid down to make a tart, flavorful syrup, a classic condiment in Iran.
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