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In Season: How to prepare a pomegranate

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The year’s first pomegranates are showing up in our stores now. They are lightly colored and sweet, but they’ll get better as the month of October progresses and the variety called Wonderful follows.

Wonderful is aptly named, for the pomegranate is one of nature’s finest gifts. How so, you may ask?

Let’s start with their nutritional benefits. A cup of seeds in their red, fleshy, sweet sacs (called arils) — about 6 ounces — contains 7 grams of fiber, 3 grams of protein, 30% of your daily need for vitamin C, 36% of your daily need for vitamin K, 16% of your folate (so important for pregnant women for the normal development of the baby growing in the womb), 12% of your potassium, plus about 1 ounce of fruit sugar. All this for just 144 calories.

Pomegranates also contain two plant compounds with powerful medicinal qualities. One, called punicalagin, is a potent antioxidant. Pomegranate juice contains three times the antioxidant activity of red wine or green tea. Punicalagins also have potent anti-inflammatory activity in the digestive tract and joints. Five ounces of pomegranate juice daily for two weeks reduced systolic blood pressure in a research study’s subjects.

The other compound is punicic acid, which may lower the risk of heart disease by preventing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol (the kind that causes arterial plaque).

Finally, pomegranate juice has antibacterial and antiviral properties, which can be protective against gum disease in the mouth and candida albicans (yeast infections).

So pomegranates are good medicine, but it’s hard to dislodge the seeds from their bitter white chambers. Do you eat the hard, crunchy seeds, or just use the juice? And how do you get the juice out?

Some folks just eat the hard seeds and enjoy the sweet juice in the arils. Others don’t like the crunchy seeds and so express the juice. Here are some tips for making your pomegranate experience quick and easy.

To get the seeds out of their chambers, cut the pomegranate in half around the middle, not from the blossom end to the stem end. Holding a half with two hands, work the leathery skin back and forth a few times, stretching it. Holding the half above a bowl, whack the skin side all over with the back of a heavy wooden or metal spoon. Almost all the seeds will drop right out into the bowl. Do this with both halves, then pick any bits of white integuments out of the seeds, and there you are.

To get the juice out, put the seeds in a large saucepan and gently heat them over low heat. When they are hot — but not boiling or cooking — mash them in the saucepan with a potato masher. Be careful as the seeds tend to spatter a little juice when the arils break, and the juice can stain your clothes. When the seeds are well mashed, pour the contents of the saucepan into a sieve set over a bowl and let the juice drain out.

There are myriad uses for this precious juice. In a tall drink glass filled with ice, pour 2 ounces of pomegranate juice, 2 ounces of vodka, and top with club soda for a well-deserved drink after a hard day’s work. Or substitute sparkling wine like sekt or prosecco for the club soda.

Over low heat, reduce a quarter cup of juice until it’s thick and syrupy, making sure it doesn’t scorch. When your roast chicken or halibut filet comes out of the oven, glaze it with the syrupy sauce.

If you are making cranberry sauce from scratch this fall, add some of this sweet sauce to the acidic cranberries. It’ll make the relish fresh-tasting.

Use the juice in the water when cooking white rice to give the rice a pleasant light color. 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 along with some fresh lemon juice, lemon zest, and an ounce of Cointreau.

Pomegranates are native to Iran, but by 4,000 years ago were grown across the Middle East. The Phoenicians later established colonies around the Mediterranean, including at Carthage in North Africa, where pomegranates were widely grown.

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 botanical name of the genus to which the pomegranate belongs.

Our name pomegranate comes from the Latin for “grainy fruit.” The first recorded instance of the word in English comes from Chaucer’s time. In 1320, he wrote that “A poumgarnet ther she brak,” or as we would say now, “There she broke a pomegranate.” Our word garnet comes from the color of the seeds in a “poumgarnet.”

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Make this a day ahead and serve it as an easy-to-make but fancy-to-see and delicious-to-taste dessert. It makes a glistening garnet-red pudding that you can serve plain or with a topping of whipped cream, spread into a crepe and roll, or stir into yogurt.

Pomegranate Tapioca

Makes 4 servings

— Juice of 2 pomegranates

¼ cup sugar

3 tablespoons quick cooking tapioca

If the pomegranates don’t make 2 cups of liquid, add enough water so you have 2 cups. Pour the mixture into a saucepan. Add the sugar. Sprinkle the tapioca over the surface and let sit for five minutes.

Heat the mixture over medium heat until it reaches a full boil, stirring all the while, and the tapioca grains are translucent. Remove from the heat. Turn into a bowl, cover, and cool or refrigerate. Serve cold.

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

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