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Pomegranates: Jewels In The Fruit Crown

The pomegranate is the fruit du jour.

There's pomegranate juice, vodka, salad dressing, ice cream, salsa, lollipops and gummy bears. You can put pomegranate essence in your hair (conditioning rinse) or on your skin (cream and perfume). In the last few years, hundreds of new pomegranate products have come on the market.

The pomegranate is an ancient fruit with a rich history in myth, symbol, art, medicine and religion. It has always been an important part of the Middle Eastern diet. Until recently, however, pomegranates were something of a seasonal novelty in the West. Then medical studies suggested what the ancients believed and Middle Easterners probably take for granted: Pomegranates are really good for you. And thus, instant celebrity.

Scientists say the leathery-skinned, orange-sized fruit with the sweet-tart juice may help with heart disease, cancer and problems associated with aging. It's loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, potassium, folic acid and iron. Pomegranates are the new superfood. Green tea and red wine, which have fewer antioxidants than pomegranates, are yesterday's health news.

The popularity of pomegranates, which are native to Iran, may have been delayed in the West because it is such a labor-intensive fruit. Beneath its tough but thin skin, each pomegranate holds hundreds of tiny seeds encased in translucent ruby pulp. Bitter, inedible membranes hold the seeds, and getting the seeds out can be a struggle -- although it doesn't have to be (see left).

Since the pomegranate's health profile has risen, though, more people are willing to make the effort. And what they find is a fruit with many uses. The seeds can be sprinkled into a green salad for color and crunch, or used in baked goods, soups, sauces and ice cream. You also can just put a bunch of them in a bowl to use as a centerpiece.

Most U.S. pomegranates are grown in California, and they're in season right now. Look for fruit that is heavy for its size and has bright, unblemished skin. Pomegranates can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two months, or in a cool, dark place for up to a month.

Pomegranates are the fruit of a small, bushy tree and are used extensively in Middle Eastern cooking. One of the most famous pomegranate dishes is the traditional Persian fesenjan, a stew of duck or chicken, pomegranates and walnuts. Like many Middle Eastern dishes, fesenjan calls for pomegranate juice or syrup. Once available only in ethnic markets, such products now are found in more mainstream markets.

In her book In a Persian Kitchen, Maida Mazdeh writes, "I always connect fesenjan with the winter season. Grandmother used to say, 'Fesenjan is hot, therefore one shouldn't eat it in summer time.' Persians divide food into two categories … some foods should be eaten in summer time because they have a cooling effect and others should be eaten in winter because they have a warming effect."

Pomegranate soup is one way to enjoy the fruit's warming effects; it uses either the juice or seeds.

One of the earliest cultivated fruits, the pomegranate has been traced back as far as 3,000 B.C. Some scholars even suggest that it was a pomegranate, not an apple, that tempted Eve.

In their long history, pomegranates have been linked to health, fertility and rebirth. They figure prominently in many religions and are found in art and literature.

King Tut and other ancient Egyptians, for example, were buried with pomegranates in hopes of a second life. The fruits are said to have been a favorite of the prophet Muhammad, and in Islam, the gardens of paradise hold pomegranates.

In the Judeo-Christian Bible, Moses tells the Israelites they are going to a land of pomegranates (among other things.) Paintings often show the Virgin Mary or the infant Jesus holding a pomegranate. The Greek goddess Persephone's taste for the pomegranate resigned her to several months a year in the underworld.

Pomegranates are mentioned in Homer's Odyssey, and Juliet tells Romeo the night is young since it is the nightingale -- and not the lark -- that is "singing in yon pomegranate tree."

No wonder the pomegranate wears its own little crown.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

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Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR commentator Bonny Wolf grew up in Minnesota and has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey and Texas. She taught journalism at Texas A&M University where she encouraged her student, Lyle Lovett, to give up music and get a real job. Wolf gives better advice about cooking and eating, and contributes her monthly food essay to NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday. She is also a contributing editor to "Kitchen Window," NPR's Web-only, weekly food column.