Long before pomegranates became the darling of the cocktail and smoothie scenes, the ruby red fruit enjoyed near sacred status in Jewish tradition.
One of the “seven species” of foods native to biblical Israel, the pomegranate was a key element of Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish new year — centuries before promotion of suspected health benefits splashed the juice into all manner of smoothies, cocktails and other drinks.
So important were pomegranates in medieval Spanish Jewish culture that, according to Gil Marks, author of the forthcoming “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” the once Jewish city Granada derives its name from the Arabic words for “Jewish pomegranate trees.”
The pomegranate — of which only the seeds are edible — even is mentioned several times in the Bible, and ornamental depictions of pomegranates, called “rimonim” in Hebrew, grace the tops of many Torah scrolls.
Part of the reason for the tradition is that pomegranates were long said to contain 613 seeds, the number of “mitzvot,” or commandments, that Jews are supposed to observe.
1,800 pomegranate seed products
Not surprisingly, seed count varies from fruit to fruit. Tom Tjerandsen of the Sonoma, Calif.-based Pomegranate Council estimates the average is closer to 850.
Whatever the number, pomegranates are hugely popular. As of June, there were more than 1,800 food and drink products that contained pomegranate seeds or juice, says Tom Vierhile, a director at market research firm DataMonitor. In 2005, there were just 258.
And many of these new products are kosher. Indeed, at last year’s annual trade show for kosher products, pomegranates were seemingly everywhere — in wines, jams, a variety of juices and other items. Beit Yitzhak Pomegranate Spread, imported from Israel, was one of the winners of the show’s “new products” competition.
Acreage in California devoted to pomegranate growth for decades held at around 3,500. But during the past 15 years that has surged to more than 20,000, “and that’s still not sufficient to handle the spark in demand,” says Tjerandsen.
Pomegranate season begins in September, coinciding with the two-day celebration of Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown on Sept. 18. Many Jews serve pomegranates on the second night of the holiday, when it is customary to eat a fruit not regularly consumed.
Jayne Cohen, author of “Jewish Holiday Cooking,” serves the juicy, red pomegranate seeds — which have a tart, almost astringent flavor — drizzled with artisanal honey in clear crystal bowls during Rosh Hashanah “so you can see how beautiful they are.”
Cohen also uses the seeds as a garnish and to add “a burst of flavor and a little crunch” to a variety of dishes, everything from fruit compote to brisket to pumpkin soup. The tartness of the fruit is a nice contrast to the sweetness of many foods served during the holiday, she says.
While pomegranates can intimidate those who have never cracked one open — for that is what you must do to get at the seeds — the Pomegranate Council recommends a fuss-free process for extracting the seeds, also called arils.
Cut off the crown of the pomegranate, then cut the fruit into sections. Place the sections in a bowl of water, then use your fingers to roll out the juice sacs (seeds). Discard everything else, then strain and eat the seeds.
A relative newcomer to the pomegranate scene is already-extracted seeds, available fresh and frozen. The fresh seeds have a limited shelf life, and the frozen lose some color and crispness, but both take the fuss out of eating pomegranate.
But the easiest way to infuse pomegranate flavors into cooking is to bypass the whole fruit and use pomegranate molasses, also called pomegranate concentrate. “It has this not just fruity, but wonderfully complex berry taste,” Cohen says.