Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

The power of the pomegranate

Since time immemorial, the pomegranate has had a powerful allure. According to Greek myth, when the maiden Persephone was abducted by Hades, god of the dead, even in her despair she couldn’t resist nibbling on a few pomegranate seeds. That snack sealed her fate. Though Zeus secured Persephone’s release from the underworld, each year she must return to Hades for a month for each seed she’d eaten. And during those woeful weeks, Persephone’s distraught mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, allows nothing on earth to grow.

Long popular in the lands of the Middle East and Mediterranean as a symbol of hope, fertility and abundance, and cultivated in California since the days of the Spanish missionaries, pomegranates have only recently captured the imagination of the American public. But they’ve done so in a mighty way.

“Since the beginning of this year more than 400 new items have been launched that contain some form of pomegranate,” said Tom Tjerandsen, manager of the Pomegranate Council in Sonoma, Calif. Before the year 2000, about two-thirds of the California pomegranate crop was used only for decoration, he added. Over the past five years, sales of the fresh fruit have increased 800 percent to 900 percent, according to Joe Granata of RLB Distributors in West Caldwell, which supplies fresh produce to the Kings Super Markets. Recently, the stores have been selling pomegranates for $3 apiece or two for $5. “At that price you’d think they wouldn’t move that good, but they sell,” said Granata (whose last name, coincidentally, is Italian for “pomegranate”). The reason for the spike in demand, he believes, is the heavy promotion of the crimson fruit and its juice as rich in antioxidants. “Americans want to live longer. If they hear something is good for them, they start eating it,” he said. “I consider it mainstream.”

High in vitamin C and potassium and a good source of fiber, fresh pomegranates contain tannins, anthocyanins and ellagic acid, three types of polyphenols, antioxidant plant compounds believed to help prevent heart disease and cancer.

Pomegranate juice, which is made from the inedible skin of the pomegranate as well as its inner flesh, contains even more nutritious compounds than the fresh fruit, according to Pam Holmgren, corporate communications manager for POM Wonderful in Los Angeles, which cultivates about 13,000 acres of pomegranates in California’s San Joachin Valley.

“We just had a plentiful crop,” she said of the harvest that ended last month. With daytime temperatures in the 90s and evening temperatures in the mid-40s, which allowed the fruit to develop its attractive red color, growing conditions for this season’s fruit were ideal, she added.

Native to Persia, pomegranates were favored by desert cultures that savored the refreshment contained in its ruby arils — juice sacs that sit in a honeycomb-like membrane — which are protected by the fruit’s leathery exterior and the spongy albedo just beneath it. Each aril contains a seed — hence our name for the fruit, from the Middle French pomme grenate, or “seedy apple.”

Botanically, the tree is referred to as Punica granatum, which comes from the Latin Malus punica or Punicum malum — Punic apple — a reference to the fact that the fruit came to Rome via the ancient Carthaginian civilization of North Africa. During their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the Moors brought the fruit, which lent the city of Granada its name, with them.

Though no longer used to make the concentrated syrup known as grenadine, pomegranates are now incorporated into a wide variety of juices, teas and even skin care products. In Middle Eastern households, pomegranate molasses is used in preparing vegetables and meat pies, and the fresh arils are sprinkled over lamb, rice and eggplant dishes. In Greece, they are tossed into cabbage salads.

An attractive addition to any fruit salad, the brilliantly red pomegranate arils also provide a perfect accent to green salads of any sort.

But how to best dislodge those pretty little juice sacs from their cozy niches without staining everything in sight? Here’s some advice from the Pomegranate Council:

1. Cut off the crown, or spiky end of the fruit, then cut the fruit into sections.

2. Place the sections in a bowl of water. Using your fingers, roll out the arils. Discard everything else.

3. Drain the arils. Pat them dry if adding them to salads or desserts.

Alternatively, place pomegranate sections in individual dishes and let everyone pick out the arils on their own. Just like Persephone, they won’t be able to resist.