It is a short but happy season now: Pomegranates are in the market. Those who love the luscious deep red fruit wait for the end of summer with the same eagerness many others reserve for the death of winter.
Pomegranates are not big sellers, but they have endured. Pomegranate juice is the basis of grenadine syrup, used by bartenders to flavor Shirley Temples and Tequila Sunrises. The juice also is used to color cake icing, and a few pomegranate seeds sprinkled on a salad make the whole dish sparkle. Medieval alchemists claimed inks made from the rind would not fade "until the end of the world." Persian and Roman physicians prescribed boiling the rinds for a tea that would cure dysentery. Mohammed urged his followers to eat pomegranates to purge the system of envy and hatred.
Obviously, this is an ancient fruit. Greek mythology tells us we owe the six months of winter to the inability of Persephone to resist eating just six seeds when she was kidnapped and held prisoner by Hades in the underworld. Hades had set a pomegranate on a table just to tempt her, knowing full well no one could resist the seeds of the ripe fruit. Her own punishment was to spend six months of each year in hell.
The fruit is picked when the skin is orange and shiny. The flavor is at its sweetest and juiciest when the skin toughens to a kind of leathery consistency and the color is a deep rich red. In general, the larger pomegranates have a better flavor than the small ones, but good color and feel should carry more weight in the selection than size. The taste, when right, is sweet and tart, something like raspberries but really a separate flavor in its own right.
There is no doubt eating them is a mess. There is no perfect way to eat a pomegranate, and all who would say otherwise are misleading the multitude. All you really want from the fruit is the soft juicy pulp that surrounds each seed. The seeds are also edible, though they have no particular flavor and most people just spit them out. If you cut the pomegranate in half with a sharp knife you will spray juice over yourself and most anything nearby. The juice has a staining power that surpasses belief. If you use a carbon steel knife, the corrosive action of the juice is sufficient to stain the knife even as it is passing through the fruit.
The Persian method, which basically avoids the whole problem, is to squeeze the skin of the fruit hard all over while it is still whole and then stick a straw into the middle of it and suck out the juice. While this has much to recommend it, the fault lies in the fact that there is always the danger some of the fleshy kernels of fruit inside will remain uncrushed and, hence, uneaten. No one who truly loves pomegranates would risk such waste. An additional problem is that the inside of a pomegrante is divided into segments by tough membranes that trap some of the juice. So forget the Persian method.
The best method is to cut a cone out of the open end of the fruit where the stamens of the pomegranate, dried and withered now, are still visible. The skin is thick here and a cut of half an inch or more can be made without damaging the kernels of fruit. With this cone of waste removed, two slits can be made with the knife on opposite edes of the newly dug hole, each perhaps another half inch or inch long, the slits should be only deep enough to cut into the outer skin, never below it. At this point the pomegranate can be grasped firmly in both hands and with the application of some strength, pulled apart and split in half. Not only will there be no juice squirting out but, if done with a little care, not a single kernel of fruit will fall on the floor. The luscious red jewels can be thumbed out onto a plate and eaten with wild abandon.