With an 8,000-year-old history, pomegranates are both beautiful and a nutrient powerhouse. It's easy to incorporate them into your kitchen routine.
Not every food that’s beautiful to the eye is also a nutrient powerhouse. But pomegranates certainly fit the bill; they serve equally well as holiday décor or antioxidant boosters.
The pomegranate has an 8,000-year-old history. Its name comes from the Medieval Latin pomum granatum (“seeded apple”). In French, the fruit is known as pomme-grenade. Grenadine was originally made from pomegranate syrup — it’s now often a concoction of high-fructose corn syrup, water, citric acid and food coloring.
The fruit originated in the region that extends from modern-day Iran to northern India, and was cultivated throughout the Mediterranean basin. Spanish settlers brought pomegranates to California in the 1700s. The “Wonderful” cultivar of pomegranate started in Florida, but a cutting was brought to California in 1896 — that’s where the company POM Wonderful got its name.
Pomegranates have a hard outer rind and a spongy white pith with a membrane that forms small chambers housing between 200 and 1,400 arils, the juicy translucent flesh surrounding the actual pomegranate seeds. Pomegranate juice is pressed from the entire pomegranate.
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Pomegranate juice is high in polyphenols; an important class of phytonutrients, these are plant compounds that have benefits for human health. The arils are high in anthocyanins, also found in many berries, while the rind and pith are rich in ellagitanins, also present in berries and nuts. Research shows that pomegranate juice has more polyphenols — and higher antioxidant potency — than red wine, iced tea (green, black and white) and commonly consumed juices — with about four times the antioxidants as green tea.
It appears that pomegranate juice helps reduce chronic inflammation and oxidative stress in the body, and may also be beneficial for gut microbiota, but research on how this applies to actual reduced risk of certain diseases is still in its early stages. Interestingly, the amount of pomegranate juice used in most clinical research is eight ounces a day — about the amount you might drink at home.
Pomegranates in the kitchen
Pomegranates have a sweet-tart flavor profile that lends itself well to both sweet and savory dishes. Fresh pomegranates are in season — and in stores — November through January, but pomegranate juice and pomegranate molasses are on store shelves year-round. Fresh, unopened pomegranates will last for a month on the kitchen counter, or many months in the refrigerator. If actually opening them seems intimidating, follow these simple steps:
1. Cut off about a half-inch from the crown (not the stem end) and score the pomegranate lengthwise where you see the divisions formed by the white membrane — usually in four to six places.
2. Pull the pomegranate apart over a large bowl of water and gently separate the arils from the section walls. The arils will sink to the bottom and the peel and membranes will float. Skim off the surface debris and drain seeds in a colander.
Note: Consider wearing an apron when handling pomegranates (at the very least, don’t wear light-colored clothing). Use plastic or glass bowls and utensils, as pomegranate juice can darken if it comes in contact with metal.
One of my favorite pantry staples is pomegranate molasses, aka thickened pomegranate juice. It’s syrupy and richly flavored, but not very sweet. You can drizzle it on roasted vegetables, brush it on roasted or grilled chicken as a glaze, or whisk it into a vinaigrette in place of some or all of the vinegar.
You can find pomegranate molasses at Mediterranean and Middle Eastern grocers, and it’s increasingly available in higher-end grocery stores. You can make your own by simmering four cups of unsweetened pomegranate juice uncovered in a heavy-bottomed, medium-sized pot over medium-low heat until it reaches a thick, molasses-like consistency — it will reduce to about one cup of molasses — which may take about an hour. Cool completely and transfer to an airtight jar. Store in the refrigerator for up to several months.
A few other ideas for adding these delicious, colorful, antioxidant-rich fruits to your meals:
Breakfast. Blend pomegranate juice into a smoothie with plain yogurt, frozen blueberries and kale or spinach. Layer the arils with yogurt and granola for a parfait, or throw some on your oatmeal.
Cocktails and mocktails. Add pomegranate juice or a smaller amount of pomegranate molasses to sparkling water for a festive mocktail spritzer — for bonus points, freeze arils in ice cube trays to add another pop of color to your beverage. Or use as a mixer in your favorite cocktail.
Salads. Add arils to chicken salad or toss into green salad — maybe with a pomegranate-molasses vinaigrette.
There are as many versions of this traditional Mediterranean dip as there are cooks. You can find Aleppo pepper and ground sumac at quality spice shops, locally or online. If you already have crushed red pepper and don’t want to shop for sumac, add a bit more lemon juice.
1 cup jarred roasted red peppers, drained
¾ cup walnuts
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon lemon juice, or more to taste
1 garlic clove
1-2 teaspoons crushed dried red pepper (preferably Aleppo pepper, but red-pepper flakes will do)
1 teaspoon ground cumin, or more to taste
1 teaspoon ground sumac
½ teaspoon sea salt, or more to taste
Warm water (optional)
Optional garnishes: Pomegranate arils, chopped walnuts, Italian parsley
Pita chips for serving
1. Add all ingredients to a food processor and pulse until combined. Process until it reaches your desired consistency — chunky or smooth.
2. Taste and adjust spices and lemon juice if needed. If you prefer a sweeter taste, add a bit of honey. Prefer a thinner mixture? Add some warm water, starting with ½ cup.
3. Serve immediately or refrigerate. If serving later, remove from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature first. Dress up with garnishes (if desired) and serve.