SWEET TART: Pomegranate juice makes a wonderful marinade for chicken, served with Belgian endive, pear and walnut salad.
SWEET TART: Pomegranate juice makes a wonderful marinade for chicken, served with Belgian endive, pear and walnut salad. (Mike Lucia - Staff)
Years ago, finding a pomegranate at a supermarket was a rare event — mainly because few grocers stocked them because so few people bought them.

Today, they can still be hard to find here in California — because they are such a hot commodity that the few fresh pomegranates that actually make it to the produce aisle disappear instantly.

"The fact is that processsors are competing for California pomegranates — the fruit is worth more processed than it is fresh," says Tom Tjerandsen, president of the California Pomegranate Council.

The bulk of the world's pomegranates, he says, are turned into a dizzying array of wildly popular new food products, including tea, vodka, syrup, salad dressing, sausage, power bars, chewing gum, baby food, breakfast cereal, jelly — plus a landslide of non-edibles such as face cream, lip gloss, and hand soap.

According to Mintel Research, a total of 478 new pomegranate products hit the market last year. Among them were 19 new pomegranate desserts, 32 sauces, 17 spreads, and 216 new pomegranate drinks — not the least of which was the Starbucks Pomegranate Frappucino.

Exactly why this once anonymous, ignored fruit has become a superfood is partly due to the pleasantly fresh, sweet-tart flavor of the juicy, jewel-like seeds, called arils. But even more important is the growing mountain of medical research detailing the incredible health benefits of fresh pomegranates.

To start, the pomegranate is full of vitamins A, C and E and high in folic acid and polyphenol antioxidants. But that's just the beginning.


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Dozens of medical studies, many of which are funded by California pomegranate giant POM Wonderful, suggest that pomegranate is indeed a wonder-juice.

It has been shown to reduce risk of heart disease by protecting heart vessels from cholesterol. It is effective in slowing and even halting the production of cancer cells in patients with prostate and breast cancer.

Pomegranate juice has been proven effective as a cure for urinary tract infections, as a protection against Alzheimer's disease, and is a powerful antioxidant, ridding the body of two to three times as many toxins as red wine.

Perhaps even more exciting is some of the inconclusive research that is currently being done — such as a study in South Africa that suggests pomegranates may be of use in treatment of HIV. Studies suggest that pomegranates, including both the juice and the rind, may be able to attach to the virus and carry it out of the body in much the same way as cranberry and pomegranate juice carry viruses out of the urinary tract.

The high demand for pomegranates will eventually prompt larger crops of the fruit, he says, but it takes time — a pomegranate bush takes three years to fruit. "Another problem is that the wholesale nurseries are perennially out of root stock. Growers can't plant if they have no trees to plant."

For now, lovers of pomegranate and commercial makers of pomegranate products will continue to compete for the supply, which is much more plentiful globally than here in California, where there are only about 15,000 acres of shrub-like pomegranate trees, mostly located at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley.

About 80 percent of the state's crop consists of the distinctly sweeter POM Wonderful variety, grown exclusively by POM Wonderful, and used to make its own proprietary products. That means local companies who make pomegranate products must find their juice elsewhere.

"POM Wonderful used to supply us with our pomegranate juice," says Cathy Jorin of Perfect Puree of Napa Valley, "but we have had to find other sources.

Wheat pilaf with pomegranate marinated grilled kebabs
Wheat pilaf with pomegranate marinated grilled kebabs (Mike Lucia - Staff)
"

Perfect Puree produces a vast lineup of fruit and vegetable purees that are sold primarily to the food trade. Of all their purees, pomegranate is the fastest growing.

"Our pomegranate sales were flat until 2004, but between 2004 and 2006, we had an increase of 250 percent," she says. "Pomegranate is now one of our most popular flavors."

Since Perfect Puree is a wholesaler, Jorin is not sure exactly where all of the pomegranate concentrate ends up, but she added that one of the biggest buyers is The Cheesecake Factory, which uses the juice to make drinks such as the hugely popular pomegranate martini that was featured on "Oprah."

In Half Moon Bay, juice producer Odwalla reports that their PomaGrand pomegranate-based juices introduced one year ago are a "wild, runaway success."

"We started out with three (different pomegranate juice varieties) in January," says marketing director Chris Brandt. "The juices were so popular that we added two more in August. Now, pomegranate sales are a signifcant portion of our sales."

He says adding pomegranate juices to the Odwalla line made sense.

"With the legitimate science about the anthocyanans and the increasing consumer awareness of pomegranate, we felt the time was right."

Brandt admits he isn't sure if interest in pomegranate juice will continue, but for now, Odwalla's goal is to blend the somewhat bitter, tannic juice with just the right extracts and fruits to make it a healthy juice that people can enjoy.

"When we were developing the line, we knew that we needed to smooth the edges." Odwalla also makes a slightly more portable pomegranate-infused snack — pomegranate-strawberry power bars.

Not nearly as good for you as Odwalla's PomaGrand — but seriously good tasting — are the new pomegranate ice creams and novelties made by Sheer Bliss in Southern California. The company makes four flavors, including pomegranate with dark chocolate chips and a vanilla-pomegranate swirl.

Turning pomegranate juice into ice cream, says company president Gary Barron, was a fun challenge.

"As we contemplated starting an ice cream company, we realized that there are 8,000 ice cream companies out there, and most of them are making all the same flavors. What we wanted to do is to offer a different flavor profile altogether."

Since Barron and his partners are true foodies, they were well aware of the growing buzz surrounding pomegranate juice.

"For us, using pomegranate wasn't about health. We are in the ice cream business. We decided to use pomegranate because it's a new taste, one that people are not familiar with, but tend to be curious about."

Turning the juice into a decadent treat, he says, is about balancing flavors.

"Straight pomegranate juice fills your mouth with this stark tartness. It really gives your head a jolt," he says. "But when you introduce dairy, it tempers the tartness. Our challenge was to find just the right balance between the tartness and the creamy texture."

Another local company that jumped on the pomegranate trend at just the right time is Republic of Tea in Novato, which introduced its first pomegranate tea in July 2005. By January of 2006, that tea was outselling the Black Ginger Peach, the company's top-selling tea for 15 years.

"I think we introduced our tea at the right time, as pomegranate was gaining in popularity as the public was growing in their understanding of it," says Meredith Post, Republic of Tea's Minister of Enlightenment.

The tea, which has a bold flavor and is a beautiful purple-pink color when brewed, is an inspired blend — the pomegranate softens the grassiness of the green tea.

Since the pomegranate green tea was such a hit, the company added other pomegranate teas to it's line, including a Get Gorgeous tea that combines pomegranate with red rooibos tea and other herbs that are designed to enhance skin and help balance hormones.

"For us, the pomegranate line is part of our mission," Post says.

"We are a gourmet tea company but we've found a niche in the wellness style of teas. Pomegranate teas are part of that larger trend of healthfulness that just keeps growing."

Pomegranate Molasses (made from POM juice)

Recipe developed for POM Wonderful by Joyce Goldstein

This is pretty close to Lebanese pomegranate molasses but not quite as tart. It works well for marinades.

3 cups POM Wonderful pomegranate juice
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice or citric acid crystals

Combine juice and sugar in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook until bubbly and thickened (liquid will have reduced to about 1 1/2 or 2 cups).

Remove from heat and add lemon juice or citric acid. If the molasses is too thick, re-warm it and thin it with more juice.

Makes about 2 cups.

Per 1/2 cup: 397 Calories; trace Fat; 1g Protein; 102g Carbohydrate; trace Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 23mg Sodium.

POM Marinated Chicken with Belgian Endive, Pear and Walnut Salad

Recipe developed for POM Wonderful by Joyce Goldstein

Marinade and chicken:
1/2 cup pomegranate molasses (see previous recipe)
1 cup fresh orange juice
1/2 cup Marsala
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons orange zest
Salt and pepper to taste
4 boneless chicken thighs

Vinaigrette:
4 tablespoons pomegranate juice
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons walnut oil
2 tablespoons olive oil, or other mild oil
Salt

Salad:
4 tablespoons walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
2 heads Belgian endive, leaves separated
1 Comice pear, cored and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon pomegranate arils

Whisk together the marinade ingredients in a medium bowl and pour into a large zip-top bag. Add the chicken thighs to the bag, massaging to coat the meat thoroughly. Seal the bag and allow the chicken to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, or up to 1 day.

Heat a grill to medium-high. Remove chicken from marinade and blot dry. Grill chicken thighs until they are firm and the juices run clear, about 7 minutes per side. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Make the vinaigrette: Combine the pomegranate and lemon juices in a bowl and slowly whisk in the walnut and olive oils until emulsified. Season to taste with salt.

Toss the walnuts with just enough vinaigrette to coat and set aside. Toss the endive and pears with most of the remaining vinaigrette and arrange the leaves on a salad plate.

Slice the cooled chicken thighs into long, thin strips. Arrange the chicken on top of the salad and drizzle with remaining vinaigrette. Sprinkle the with walnuts and pomegranate arils and serve.

Serves 4.

Per serving: 380 Calories; 21g Fat; 19g Protein; 29g Carbohydrate; 10g Dietary Fiber; 57mg Cholesterol; 188mg Sodium.

Wheat Pilaf

Recipe developed for POM Wonderful by Joyce Goldstein

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
Salt to taste
1 1/2 cups bulgur wheat, medium grind
3 cups hot chicken stock or water

For garnish:
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
1/2 cup pomegranate arils
1/3 cup toasted almonds or pine nuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Heat the oil in a heavy oven safe saute pan over moderate heat. Add the finely chopped onions and a pinch of salt and cook for about 10 minutes, until the onions are tender and translucent.

Add the bulgur and stir until the grains are coated with oil.

Add half of the hot chicken stock and stir over low heat until the stock is absorbed. Add the rest of the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer over low heat, tightly covered, for about 15 minutes.

Uncover the pan, stir the pilaf and place the pan in the oven. (If you don't have an oven safe saute pan, transfer the pilaf to a casserole dish.) Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Stir again. The pilaf should be ready, but if the grains seem sticky, return the pan to the oven for about 10 more minutes, or until the grains are dry and separate.

Fold in the green onions, nuts, mint and arils and serve.

Serves 8.

Per serving: 208 Calories; 10g Fat; 5g Protein; 25g Carbohydrate; 6g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 880mg Sodium.

Pomegranate Marinated Lamb Kebabs

Recipe developed for POM Wonderful by Joyce Goldstein

3 pounds boneless leg of lamb, excess fat removed, cut into 2-inch cubes

Marinade:

3/4 cup pomegranate molasses (see above recipe)
1/4 cup dry red wine
1 large onion, grated, or pureed in a food processor
1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 teaspoons black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
2 red onions, cubed
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Put meat chunks in a non-corrosive shallow container. Combine all of the ingredients for the marinade and pour over the meat. Cover the pan and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat the broiler or make a charcoal fire. Remove the meat from the refrigerator and drain, but save the marinade.

Thread the meat on 6 skewers, alternating with some of the onion chunks. Brush the kebabs with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Broil or grill for about 8 to 12 minutes, depending on the heat of the flame, turning the skewers so that the meat cooks evenly but remains quite pink in the center. Baste occasionally with the marinade.

Serve with cracked wheat pilaf.

Serves 6.

Per serving: 627 Calories; 49g Fat; 33g Protein; 12g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 124mg Cholesterol; 114mg Sodium.

'A' is for aril

Unless you have grown up eating pomegranates, it's a little hard to know exactly how to approach them. The outside is as thick as leather; inside are pockets of jewel-like seeds called arils wrapped in juice. Cut them and you end up with a juicy mess all over your counter. Bite into them and you get a mouthful of bitterness.

When I was young, we kids simply plucked the giant fruits and threw them to the ground, hard, until they busted into pieces. Voila! Instant snack.

A more civilized approach, it turns out, is to use a knife to cut the core out of the crown end of the pomegranate.

Next, carefully slip two thumbs into the middle of the fruit and pull the pomegranate open.

While it's simpler to chop the thing in two, it causes loss of juice, and Persians consider it to be bad luck.

Once open, you can see the perfect lines of seeds, called arils. You can flick them out, pulling the membranes out of the way, layer after layer. (If you do this over a bowl of water the bitter pith will float while the plump arils sink to the bottom.)

But if you don't have quite that much time and patience, cradle half of the fruit in your hand, seed side against your fingers, and hold your hand over a large bowl.

Grab a heavy spoon or spatula and whack the thick, leathery rind of the fruit. Open your fingers over the bowl and allow the seeds to fall through your fingers. Continue to whack the fruit until all of the seeds are in the bowl.

Pomegranate juice stains, so be very careful to keep track of all of the seeds. Also, know that the membrane that surrounds those seeds does not taste good. It is bitter. (I learned this the hard way.)

One last word: Yes, you are most welcome to eat those little seeds inside the arils. They are considered good roughage and help cleanse the body.

In India, the seeds are dried and ground into a powder to be used in meat dishes. But if you don't like them, go ahead and spit them out.

If you are using pomegranates in a recipe, know that one medium pomegranate has about 700 seeds which yield 1/2 to 3/4 cup of whole seed pips (arils) or 1/2 cup juice.

-Watch a video on how to clean a pomegranate, and get the recipe for a pomegranate gin and tonic, on our Web site http://www.insidebayarea.com/food

Cooking with pomegranates

Pomegranate was the hottest new ingredient in 2005. And in 2006. And it's popularity is likely to continue into 2007 — and beyond — says San Francisco cookbook author Joyce Goldstein.

"Pomegranate isn't a fad," Goldstein says. "Pomegranate is a trend. Once people see it and try it, they are hooked. People love that combination of sweet and tart. Pomegranate is not going to go away."

Besides enjoying the healthful juice in martinis, margaritas and smoothies, pomegranate is fast becoming a chef's favorite. Pastry Chef Elizabeth Faulkner of Citizen Cake in San Francisco makes a pomegranate cheesecake. Other local chefs use pomegranate to flavor crab cakes, salads, breads, lamb and ribs.

Goldstein, author of several Mediterranean cookbooks, is not surprised that the ancient fruit is turning up on menus everywhere.

"I love pomegranate," Goldstein says, "because it's so versatile. I use it in salad and salad dressings. It makes the best marinade — it creates an amazing caramelized crust on meats."

Goldstein, who created a stash of recipes for POM Wonderful, says using pomegranate in cooking is nearly foolproof. The primarily rule, she says, is to use the flavor in moderation.

"Pomegranates can be quite sour, so you want to taste the juice.

California pomegranates tend to be a lot sweeter than those you get in the Middle East.

"Because it's so tart, the juice replaces your vinegar or lemon juice. It's especially nice for dressing a fruity salad. I especially like it with walnut oil, served on top of persimmons and apples."

For most recipes, Goldstein says, she prefers to reduce pomegranate juice to intensify the flavor — or to simply use pomegranate molasses.

"Since I use molasses more often, I developed a recipe for making a pomegranate syrup," she says. Unlike many fruits, she adds, pomegranate flavor does not change drastically when cooked.

Although Goldstein has tasted pomegranate as a syrup on panna cotta or ice cream, she says she has not experimented much with using pomegranate in desserts. "I am just not a big dessert person."

— Jolene Thym