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At this time of the year, big, fat pomegranates are in the stores. By the end of the year, they’ll be gone, so now is the time to indulge.

Indulge? Yes, the juice has a wonderful sweet-tart flavor, but the hard crunchy seeds are no fun. Extracting the seeds from the bitter white membranes that enfold them (in ways a puzzle-master would be proud of) make deseeding a pomegranate a real chore. It’s no wonder that American cooks find few uses for this intriguing fruit.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a quick and easy way to deseed a pomegranate, nor that it has few uses. Read on.

For such an underutilized fruit, pomegranates figure widely in the fundamental myths and legends of our Western culture. They supposedly were grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, not only for their fruit but also because they are a beautifully ornamental plant, a small, many-trunked tree with reddish-orange flowers on light green leaves.

By the Early Bronze Age (ca. 2000 BC), Canaanites living in what is now Lebanon and Israel were growing pomegranates, though they aren’t native to that region. Their true home is Iran, where wild species still grow. Around 1250 BC, the Sea Peoples landed on the shores of the Levant and mingled with the Canaanites, and these comingled people were called Phoenicians by the Greeks.

The Phoenicians established colonies around the Mediterranean, including at Carthage in North Africa. The Romans called Carthage Punis — a word derived from Phoenicia — hence “the Punic Wars.” They called the pomegranate mala punica, or “Carthaginian apple.” And punica became the name of the genus to which the pomegranate belongs. The gem we call garnet comes from “granate” in the word pomegranate, and is the color of the juicy seed sacs.

Pomegranates have great stores of antioxidants, including 13 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 grams of pulp and juice. When selecting pomegranates, heft the fruits and select those that feel heavy — they’ll have more juice. The leathery skin should not be dried out or wrinkled.

For that quick and easy way to extract the seeds, please visit the video of how it’s done that you will find on YouTube by entering How to Remove Pomegranate Seeds the Easy Way in the search box.

The juice is used for flavoring, to color rice and to add zest to meats like chicken, duck and lamb. Organic pomegranate juice is now available, sweetened and unsweetened. The unsweetened juice can be used in cooking, but doesn’t have the flavor of fresh juice.

The best way to get the juice out is to make a bag of a double thickness of cheesecloth tied securely shut. Place the bag in a stainless saucepan or glass pot, and mash the bag with a potato masher, then twist and strangle the bag until the juice stops flowing.

Fresh pomegranate juice makes a very refreshing drink if given a little sweetener and splashed with sparkling water and a small squeeze of lime juice. Use juice in the water when cooking white rice to give the rice a pleasant pink color. Sweeten the juice and mix some in yogurt to eat in a bowl, or pour over bananas, or make a pomegranate-and-honey-flavored frozen yogurt. Marinate a butterflied leg of lamb in the fridge overnight in fresh pomegranate juice given some fresh lemon juice, lemon zest, and an ounce of Cointreau.

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Fesenjan is the famous Iranian stew made with walnuts and pomegranates. It originated in the province of Gilan, where the shores of the Caspian Sea teem with wild ducks. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs or lamb slices can be substituted for the duck.

Fesenjan
Serves 4

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, minced
½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 pound duck breasts, cut into thin strips
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
½ pound of walnuts, coarsely chopped
3 cups fresh pomegranate juice
— Salt to taste
— Juice of 1 lemon (optional)
— Granulated sugar to taste (optional)
1 small eggplant
½ teaspoon cardamom powder

Heat a skillet with two tablespoons of the oil to medium and sauté the onion with the pepper and turmeric for a few minutes, until translucent.

Remove the onions, allowing any oil to remain in the skillet. Sauté the duck, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the meat with the flour and the chopped walnuts and sauté for three more minutes, turning once or twice.


Add the pomegranate juice and salt. The taste should be a nice balance of sweet and sour. If it needs more sour to balance the sweetness, add lemon juice. If it needs more sweetness, use a little sugar. Cover the skillet and reduce heat to low.

Simmer, stirring occasionally so the nuts don’t burn.

Peel the eggplant and cut lengthwise into six or eight pieces. Sprinkle each piece with salt and stack one on top of the other for five minutes, then rinse under cold water. Pat dry with paper towels then sauté in a separate skillet over medium heat in the remaining olive oil until browned on both sides. When the eggplant is browned, arrange the pieces on top of the meat in the first skillet, replace the cover, and continue simmering until 40 minutes of simmering time has elapsed.

Add the cardamom powder and gently mix it into the stew. The sauce should be the consistency of heavy cream. If it’s too thick, dilute it with a little warm water. Serve the stew hot with plenty of white rice and let people take rice and stew as they wish.


Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based garden and food writer. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.