In Israel for a few days, I’ve been hearing a lot about “the new Israeli cuisine.” From my perspective, it seems firmly rooted in Middle Eastern antecedents, with a healthy dose of California cool in the form of, mostly, great vegetables and occasionally great fruits as well. Pomegranates, especially, show up in lots of ways — and I don’t mean boiled-down pomegranate syrup, so-called molasses, but fresh pomegranate juice (delicious in a cocktail with cava and a splash of vodka) and crunchy tart-sweet pomegranate seeds. At his rustic home way up on the Lebanese border, Erez Komarovsky, who is widely regarded as one of Israel’s most influential chefs, served a beautiful veal carpaccio with a thick scattering of brilliant ruby pomegranate seeds to a small group gathered for lunch. The garnish added tang and crunch to what’s at heart a pretty bland dish. As the little seeds pop between your teeth, you might be tempted to think, as I did: “‘Hmm, at last, something new to say about veal carpaccio.'”
It’s not always easy to find good pomegranates in U.S. markets. The best are deep crimson in color with a firm, unblemished surface, but I’m told that the paler ones — more of a golden color with a blush — are simply a different variety and may be just as ripe as the handsome red ones. In either case, pomegranates should feel heavy in your hand; lighter ones are dried up, an indication they were harvested long ago.
Once you’ve got them home, the trick is to open them. Persian-American food writer Najmieh Batmanglij taught me how to do this. Take an ordinary soup spoon and thump the pomegranate hard all over its surface. This will dislodge many of the bright seeds inside and make them easier to extract. Then with a sharp knife, score around the equator of the fruit and then score segments up or down to the poles — just like meridian (longitude) lines. Now you can extract each segment and shake it over a bowl to release the seeds. Pick out any bits of bitter white membrane that remain attached to the seeds, which are also called arils, so that the result is a bowlful of sparkling ruby jewels.
Releasing the seeds
Each jewel is actually a tiny sac of juice with a crisp seed in the center. To extract the juice, don’t even think about throwing them all in a food processor. (I don’t know if a juicer would work as I’ve never owned such a thing.) Instead, press the arils through a sieve, using the back of a spoon to work the juice out and leave the crunchy seeds behind. For a garnish, whole pomegranate seeds add texture and bright contrast to any dish. Try them on plain roasted fish with a garlic-lemon-oil sauce, sprinkle them over a bowl of guacamole or breakfast yogurt (plain, of course), or use them as Komarovsky did, scattered liberally over a platter of meat or seafood carpaccio.
Or mix a healthy antioxidant cocktail: a cup of pomegranate juice, a half-cup of cava or prosecco and a shot of good vodka for good measure. “L’chaim!” will take on new meaning.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.