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IN SEASON / Pomegranates : Crimson Fruit Adds Taste to The Season

December 05, 1991|KITTY MORSE | Kitty Morse is a free-lance writer and cookbook author living in Vista.

To the Pharaohs, the bright crimson pomegranate was a fruit of many virtues. Numerous references to the pomegranate also exist in the Bible. In the Middle East, where the fruit is prized for its medicinal properties, most gardens would not be complete without a pomegranate bush.

Indeed, those who have grown up around the Mediterranean Basin, where pomegranates are a staple, can wax poetic about the crunchy seeds that explode with sweet-sour juice under the tooth. The pomegranate remains for many American consumers just an ornamental tree, or a bright touch of crimson in a festive fruit display.

Pomegranates prefer a dry, arid climate, and are among the most decorative of drought-tolerant plants. They can easily be grown from a cutting. Their full, lush foliage, make them popular as a hedge. The blossoms are bell-shaped, painting the bush's deep green foliage with touches of orangy-red in early spring. The flower remains attached to the fruit to form the "calyx." A good yield, which can mean anything from 200 to 400 pounds per tree a year, usually follows a cool winter.

In season, heavy scarlet globes enrobed in a thick, leathery skin hang from the bush's green limbs, giving the trees a particularly festive appearance that can last well past the holiday season. Indeed, the pomegranate's flavor improves as it stays on the tree, as long as the fruit doesn't start to shrivel.

Despite its hardiness, the pomegranate, introduced to California in the late 1700s by Spanish missionaries, has "good years and bad years, depending on nature," says John Herbel, an organic grower in Fallbrook. "And this year is not a good one because the weather hasn't been quite right." Herbel, who deals mainly in citrus and avocados, also tends more than 100 trees of "Wonderful," an early pomegranate variety popular in California.

Andrea Peterson, another pomegranate fancier in North County, enjoys the fruit not only for its sweet, refreshing flavor, but also for its special appeal to birds. "When the fruit splits, it makes a natural feeder for finches and hummingbirds. It's a memorable sight," she says. She too, follows organic growing methods, and favors the Wonderful variety for its slight tartness. Peterson also has found this to be a poor year locally for the pomegranate.

Grower Iran Jewett says her "Sweet" variety pomegranate bush didn't yield a single fruit this year. The young tree, lighter and with a pinker interior sweeter than the Wonderful, suffered from the mandatory water cutbacks, she said. Jewett has been familiar with the fruit since childhood. This is the way she recommends getting the maximum juice out of a pomegranate: "Roll it gently with your thumbs to gently break up the seeds inside," she says. "Then, you can poke a hole in it, and suck out the juice." In places such as Iran and Kashmir, says Jewett, the seeds are dried and ground into a powder that is used as a flavoring in many dishes.

Pomegranates are also a favorite of local cooking authority Fran Jenkins, who planted several pomegranate trees in her family orchard in Valley Center. "I love the jewel-like qualities of the fruit," she says, "And to my mind, there is no finer jelly than the one made with the pomegranate."

To break open the fruit without fear of stains (one of the drawbacks of the blood-red juice) Jenkins recommends the following method: Fill a sink or a large bowl with water. Hold the fruit underwater, cut open the crown, and score the skin lightly into quarters. Soak the fruit for a few minutes. Gently remove the skin. The seeds will pop out and sink to the bottom as the white pith floats to the top. Scoop out the seeds and drain. Proceed with the recipe, whether to make juice, or simply to sprinkle the red kernel-like seeds over a salad. Pomegranate juice is also the essential ingredient in grenadine syrup.

Despite this season's poor crop, pomegranates are available at:

Carlsbad Ranch Market, 6118 Paseo del Norte, Carlsbad. 438-3202. Locally grown pomegranates, 49 cents a pound.

Cardiff Seaside Market, 2087 San Elijo, Cardiff by the Sea. 753-5445. Locally grown, Colossal pomegranates, about $1.49 each.

Community Market, 745 First Street, Encinitas. 753-4632. Organically grown, local pomegranates $1.09 a pound.

Major Market, 1855 South Centre City Parkway, Escondido. Pomegranates 59 cents to 79 cents apiece, depending on size.

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