Around this time of year, the shiny green foliage of pomegranate trees turns a brilliant yellow and a rounded fruit appears, replacing spring's scarlet blossoms.
Ventura County doesn't have a prolific pomegranate harvest, but that doesn't stop fanciers from driving from as far away as Los Angeles to purchase the fruit grown at Santa Paula's Timber Canyon Ranch, owned by Mike Shore.
"We see a lot of familiar faces," Shore said. "They know generally when the pomegranates are ready to be picked so they watch for a tiny sign we put out when they're ready."
As customers descend upon Timber Canyon Ranch looking for pomegranates, they will not find the typical roadside stand familiar to the Ventura County countryside.
"The fruit is sold on a self-serve, honor system," Shore said, "We put out bags and they pay for what they take."
Customers deposit $1 in a metal cash box for a bag of 10 pomegranates.
"We mostly rely on repeat customers and it's never been a problem," he said of the unattended, self-serve stand. "It's part of the whole fun of the thing.
"We have folks--and now their children--who have been coming for probably 50 or 60 years," Shore said.
The tangy pomegranate is native to the Middle East and its juice is used in many Middle Eastern recipes.
"One way to prepare meat like beef or chicken is to brown it first and then add pomegranate juice and cook it in that," Shore said, "and after cooking, pour the juice over rice--it makes a nice, fruity sauce."
Obtaining the juice from the rubylike seeds of a pomegranate can prove more difficult than, say, squeezing an orange. The tiny seeds must first be removed from the bitter membrane--tainted with tannin--that encases them.
Shore's wife, Mary, suggested using the juice, an ideal source of Vitamin C, to make jelly.
"You only need pectin, sugar and pomegranate juice; boil it and basically follow the simple directions written on the pectin box," she said.
Mary Shore said the juice of about 24 pomegranates is sufficient for about eight six-ounce jars.
Shore said pomegranates are not generally grown in Ventura County on a commercial level. But given the tree's heartiness and brightly colored flowers, you may want to plant one to spruce up your landscape.
"The tree is relatively drought tolerant, the flowers are lovely and they'll grow almost anywhere," he said.
"They don't need much care or water--they kind of sit there and grow," Shore said, "plus there are many varieties, like fruitless or the miniature-sized fruit-bearing trees."
When purchasing pomegranates, Shore said, look for a bright red, smooth surface. "You don't want a pomegranate that's lost its shine and a rind that appears to be dried out," he said.
Timber Canyon Ranch's 60 pomegranate trees will bear fruit through the end of November, Shore said.
The self-service stand is located at 19659 E. Telegraph Road, Santa Paula. Watch for the "tiny" sign from the road. Call 525-0394.
SERVING SUGGESTION POMEGRANATE SEEDS
We suggest this method for extracting the seeds:
Cut off the crown end of the pomegranate and lightly score the rind lengthwise in several places.
Next, immerse the fruit in a bowl of cool water, break the sections apart with your fingers, separating the seeds from the membranes as you work.
As they are separated, the seeds will sink to bottom of the bowl, while the rind and the membrane float to the top.
This makes it easy to skim off and discard the unwanted portions.
Pour the seeds into a strainer or colander, then spread on a paper towel and gently pat dry.
The seeds can now simply be pureed in a blender or food processor, then filtered through a cheesecloth-lined strainer to obtain the juice.
* Central Market--Lima beans, onions and a variety of peppers are offered fresh this week. 505 N. Wood Road, Camarillo. Call 983-1211.
* Underwood Ranch--This week watch for a variety of fresh radishes and baby carrots. 5696 Los Angeles Ave., Somis. Call 987-7100.
* Cal Pacifica Seafood-Fresh catch this week is mako and thresher shark. 36 Franklin Lane, Ventura.