It's hard to tell what to do with a pomegranate the first time out. Cut the thing open; then your impulse might be to scrap all those shiny, red seeds and collect the tawny "pulp." Wrong. The seeds are the good part. But how to properly tackle the pomegranate has not been a tightly held secret through the ages.
The ruby red pomegranate was mentioned in the Bible, highly prized in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, noted as a symbol of fertility in some mythology and seen as a frequent subject in Chinese paintings. It is cultivated in Mediterranean countries, India and Iran; in the United States, most pomegranates are grown in California, where the season begins in early September, peaks now and ends in December.
How to select: Choose pomegranates that feel heavy for their size; the bright red skin might be flecked with brown but should not be cracked or wrinkled. The average fruit is three inches in diameter; one medium pomegranate yields about 3/4 cup of seeds or a 1/2 cup of juice.
How to store: The pomegranate stores well and will keep in the refrigerator or in a cool, dark place for a couple of weeks.
How to open: Many American cooks have no idea what to do with a pomegranate other than to put it in a nice bowl and admire it as a centerpiece. So the first piece of advice: Don't wear party clothes when you slice it open. Its brilliant red juice will stain fabric, tablecloths and countertops. First, roll the fruit on the kitchen counter to soften the pulp. Then lightly score the rind in several places. While holding it over a bowl to catch the juices, pry it open.
Inside, the adventure begins. The pomegranate is divided into several (about six) sacs. Each sac is loaded with seeds and is separated from the other sacs by a whitish yellow membrane. Discard the membrane. In this fruit, it's the seeds, the red pulp enclosing the seeds and the juice you can squeeze from them that you want. Each tiny edible seed is surrounded by a brilliant red juice-gel that has a delectable sweet-tart flavor. Some people refer to the whole package of pulp and seed as the "seed" and eat the whole thing. Others eat only the pulp and spit out the more bitter tasting inner pips.
What to do with it once you've opened it: Squeeze the juice (it tastes rather like cranberry juice) from the fruit and use it to marinate lamb before you grill it; or cook the juice with sugar to make a syrup, then brush the lamb with the glaze as you grill. You can catch some of the juice from the seeds that break as you pry open the fruit; or you can take the seeds, red pulp and all, whirl them all in a blender, and then strain the liquid through a sieve or cheesecloth to make more juice. Middle Eastern cooking has long favored pomegranate marinade for lamb, quail and chicken and these days the ingredient is showing up all over. The pomegranate is also a hit with chefs who value it as a visual: they scatter pomegranate seeds on plates for color.
You can also mix the juice with sugar and use it to flavor drinks (Tequila Sunrises, for example). As for the pulp-covered seeds, you can throw them into fruit salads or on top of sorbets or drop them in drinks, such as champagne cocktails. Add them to applesauce or put them atop waffles, pancakes or ice cream sundaes. Or--if you're wearing dark clothes--just nibble them all day long.