Kitchen Witch - Pomegranate 101: A primer on the 'it' fruit

If you've been out for drinks lately, you may have noticed the seeds or juice of a pomegranate showing up in your favorite cocktail. The pomegranate is the "it" fruit, baby, but she ain't the new girl in town. In fact, she's been around since prehistoric times and is documented as one of the earliest cultivated fruits. She came from Iran or Turkey, turned up in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and became an important religious, literary and artistic symbol in several ancient cultures. She still reigns as a symbol of fertility and abundance around the world.

"OK, cool," you're thinking. "I'm drinking a trendy ruby cocktail that also works as a fertility doll. But what the hell is a pomegranate and how do I eat one?"

The pomegranate is about as big as an apple, with a tough, leathery rind that's crimson in color. It's got a little top hat at one end, also known as a calyx. Don't bother peeling the fruit; with a sharp knife, slice it in half. Inside, you'll find an off-white paperlike membrane encasing hundreds of translucent jewel-like seeds (also called tendrils) that contain juice — juice that stains (it was once used as ink). You've been warned, so place both halves in a deep bowl.

With your hands, break open the halves and loosen the seeds so that they separate from the membrane, which you don't want to eat. This process may take up to 10 minutes, which is why I think Americans have not historically been hip to pomegranates — they're too much work for our convenience-obsessed society.

However, recent medical research has revealed the antioxidant prowess of the pomegranate (try saying that five times fast), beating out the anti-aging polyphenols found in red wine and green tea. Pomegranate juice is now bottled and heavily marketed. POM Wonderful brand is to pomegranate juice what Tropicana is to orange. You'll find individually sized bottles of POM in places like Whole Foods, as well as Naked Food-Juice's version of pomegranate-blueberry juice.

In addition to its antioxidant properties, the pomegranate is loaded with vitamin C and has respectable amounts of potassium and fiber. And of course, it's heaven for calorie counters; one pomegranate is approximately 100 calories.

Why bother with such a labor-intensive fruit, you might ask? For starters, the pomegranate is exotic. Think of how much fun it would be to share on a date, feeding each other nature's Sweetarts, while getting messy in the process.

They also make terrific garnish. I love them in salads, on rice (like jewels on snow) and on top of tarts, both sweet and savory. In fact, I've been known to dot my onion-goat cheese tarts with a handful of pomegranate seeds, a festive touch to a homey dish.

The pom is in season right now, coming from California, and she's in town only until January. Get to know her and see how she stacks up against winter citrus, which, by the way, was ravaged by the spate of Florida hurricanes earlier this fall.

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