Eat, drink, decorate the magical, mystical pomegranate does it all

What can’t a pomegranate do?

It’s common knowledge these days that this jewel-red fruit is a great source of antioxidants and vitamin C. But there’s more to know and savor about the Fruit of the Dead: it can reduce the risk of heart disease, its juice can be used as an antiseptic and it may even help prevent cancer and osteoarthritis — and that’s just for starters.

In short, it may be a good idea to keep a pomegranate in your medicine cabinet, just in case.

Pomegranate juice is the latest craze for health-conscious Americans, but for denizens of the Middle East, this is old news. Pomegranate worship has been around since at least the ancient Israelites, Egyptians and Babylonians, and the myths and old wives’ tales surrounding the fruit abound.

For the ancient Greeks, the pomegranate symbolized the goddess Persephone, who ate pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld, binding her to live with Hades for four months of the year (the period we now know as winter). In China pomegranates represent fertility, and pictures of the fruit are often given as wedding gifts.

The Torah mentions pomegranates as being woven into the borders of the priestly garments, in threads of blue, purple and scarlet; 1 Kings mentions their decorative use in King Solomon’s Temple. The Talmud (Tractate Brachot) has a lengthy description of what it means to see a pomegranate in a dream, ranging from business prosperity to improved scholarship. Some scholars even believe it was a pomegranate, not an apple, that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.

More well known is the Jewish legend that pomegranates contain 613 seeds, the number of mitzvahs in the Torah; by that measure, they’re considered to be a symbol of righteousness.

My first memory of tasting pomegranate was on Rosh Hashanah, when a small bowl filled with pomegranate seeds was on the table at my parents’ Israeli friends’ house. I later learned that it’s traditional to eat the seeds on the holiday, to symbolize our commitment to carrying out the 613 mitzvahs throughout the coming year.

In recent years, I have tried to incorporate the fruit into my Rosh Hashanah meals. And with an abundance of pomegranate products on the market these days, it’s not hard to do.

One new item on store shelves this year is pomegranate wine from Israel’s Rimon Winery (“rimon” means pomegranate in Hebrew). The winery, located in the Upper Galilee region, prides itself on creating wines made from 100 percent pomegranate. The owners, father and son Gaby and Avi Nachmias, have developed a variety of the fruit that is sweeter, and even richer in vitamins and antioxidants (and you thought red wine was good for you!).

Right now Rimon Winery is selling their 2005 Rimon dessert wine, and by November they will add a dry wine and a Port-style wine to the collection. As a bonus, it’s all certified kosher.

Rimon’s pomegranate wine can be found locally at Piazza’s Fine Foods in Palo Alto and San Mateo, and Oakville Grocery in Palo Alto. It’ll also be available at Andronico’s and Mollie Stone’s starting in September, and can be purchased online at

Pomegranate molasses has been around for years, but is only now being discovered in earnest by American cooks. This tart, aromatic syrup works well with walnuts and eggplant and sharpens the taste of grilled fish and chicken. Pomegranate molasses is sold at Middle Eastern groceries; in San Francisco, the French-inspired restaurant Boulette’s Larder sells Cortas brand, which comes from Lebanon.

If you prefer your pomegranates raw, a number of local farms grow and sell the fruit, which starts to arrive at market in early fall.

Ginger Balakian of Balakian Farms in Reedley — about 25 miles southeast of Fresno — sells pomegranates at several local farmer’s markets: at the Ferry Building in San Francisco and Oakland’s Grand Lake on Saturdays, and the San Rafael Civic Center on Sundays. Pomegranates will show up at the Balakian Farms stand sometime in mid to late September.

“I have customers who come just for [the pomegranates],” Balakian says. “It’s not like a peach — it’s not as well known — but they’re getting more popular.”

There are a few ways to get the seeds (the only edible part) out of a pomegranate. One way is to cut off the top, make several shallow cuts in the fruit and place it in a bowl of water. Carefully break the sections apart and pull the seeds away from the pith.

Balakian, however, notes that “when the pomegranate is ripe, the seeds don’t stick to the membrane as tightly, so I just knock them off into a bowl.”

To make pomegranate juice, run the seeds through a blender, then strain through a sieve or cheesecloth. You can also buy pre-made juice in any local supermarket.

The following recipes would make a nice addition to any Rosh Hashanah feast. And the fruit itself, with its beautiful color and delicate top, would be a lovely decoration for your holiday table.

Pomegranate-Glazed Salmon

Serves 4

1 1/2 lbs. salmon

1/4 cup pomegranate juice

1/4 cup honey

2 Tbs. orange juice

1 Tbs. soy sauce

1 tsp. ground ginger

Preheat oven to 425 degrees and place salmon in a baking pan. Combine remaining ingredients in small saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until boiling. Lower heat and simmer sauce uncovered for 15 minutes.

Reserve 1/2 of glaze and pour remainder over salmon. Bake salmon for 10-15 minutes or until it flakes easily with a fork. When ready to serve, brush salmon with reserved glaze.

Grilled Eggplant with Pomegranate Molasses

Serves 6

2 large eggplants, sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch rounds

pomegranate molasses

Grill eggplant slices over medium-high heat until tender, about 4 minutes on each side. Drizzle with pomegranate molasses.

Roasted Bosc Pears With Pomegranate Glaze

(From Bon Appétit, October 2004)

Serves 6

3/4 cup dry red wine, such as Syrah or Zinfandel

3/4 cup pomegranate juice

1/2 cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick

2 tsp. grated orange peel

6 Bosc pears with stems, peeled

This recipe can be made 4 hours ahead. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir wine, pomegranate juice, sugar, cinnamon stick and orange peel in medium saucepan over medium heat until sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes.

Using small melon baller, core pears from bottom of wide end. Trim bottoms flat and stand upright in 8×8-inch baking dish. Pour pomegranate-wine sauce over pears. Roast pears until tender when pierced with knife, basting pears with sauce every 20 minutes, about 1 hour. Using spatula, transfer roasted pears to serving platter. Transfer pan juices to small saucepan. Simmer until reduced to 2/3 cup, about 5 minutes. If not serving right away, let sauce and pears stand at room temperature. Reheat sauce before serving.

Spoon glaze over pears. Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream and biscotti