Flash in the Pan

Pomegranate in a winter wonderland


As winter heads into full gear, fresh produce is starting to feel like a faded memory. The tomatoes are mealy and the lettuce has jet lag, but the pomegranate harvest has just begun. Don’t take the lovely pomegranate for granted.

The bright-red orbs dangle from the bushy plants like Christmas tree ornaments. The fleshy seeds inside are like juicy rubies and can turn the average cook into a culinary magician. Grab a handful and fling them at your food as if you’re gesticulating the words “hocus pocus.” Cast the seeds on salad, soup, steak, breakfast and everything in between. Today’s featured recipe, linguini with a mushroom-cheese sauce, ends with a generous dusting of the seeds. Their sharp sweetness adds a double-edged sword of flavor, balancing sweet and savory alike with their tartness like sips from a glass of lusty red wine.

Native to Iran, Afghanistan and the Himalayas, pomegranates have inserted themselves inextricably into the local cuisines and cultures. In modern times, they have found homes around the warm edges of temperate climates throughout the world. The trees are tolerant to high heat and low precipitation, are generally easy to grow and can produce huge crops. The fruits can be stored for months and shipped slowly, helping to make pomegranates climate-friendly and well-adapted to a planet that is already heating up. This adaptability, coupled with a growing demand for the fruit, has caused a surge in pomegranate trees being planted. Pomegranate orchards are replacing apple orchards in parts of India that are now too hot for apple growing. Meanwhile, pomegranate trees thrive in many of the same areas that support opium poppies, like Afghanistan and Mexico, which means a pomegranate-heavy diet could help steer rural economies away from the narcotics business.

Extracting the seeds can be messy if your technique is off. But if you score the peel around the equator, pull the fruit in half and tap gently, the seeds rush out like Black Friday shoppers storming the gates of Walmart.

This technique comes from Turkey, where a food writer named Robyn Eckhardt once sat down with a group of women, some pieces of plastic pipe and 100 kilograms of fresh pomegranates. They spent the day liberating pomegranate seeds, with which they would make pomegranate molasses. Eckhardt emailed me the technique they used to get the seeds out.

“Gently squeeze one pomegranate half, cut side down, over a wide, deep bowl to loosen the seeds,” he wrote. “Place it cut side down in your non-dominant hand. Spread your fingers to create a ‘sieve’ through which the seeds can fall. With the handle of a wooden spoon or spatula, tap the pomegranate all over. Dislodged seeds will fall into the bowl (the bits of bitter, white membrane will remain in your hand). Continue tapping, turning the pomegranate in your hand, until most of the seeds are dislodged. If any white membrane has fallen into the bowl, pick it out.”

The fruit’s fridge life can be extended for months by wrapping it in paper towels and storing in a paper bag at the bottom of the fridge where there isn’t much activity, explained my other pomegranate advisor, chef Ray Risho, an expert in Old World cuisine. You want to leave the wrapped pomegranates unbothered with as few vibrations as possible. 

“Like bottles of fine wine,” he explained, “the less the pomegranates are disturbed, the better they will keep.”

Risho gave me his recipe for “linguine con funghi e formaggio,” which owes its magic in part to its garnish of pomegranate seeds. The dusting of the seeds electrifies the dish, and you should be sure to have plenty of extras on hand to apply. Otherwise, the magic will be lost.

Linguine con funghi e formaggio

In addition to the pomegranate seeds, this recipe depends on a mix of mushrooms and not adding too much cheese. I like to make sure there are shiitake or oyster mushrooms, because those varieties are extra chewy, which adds a nice texture.

Makes 4 servings

1/2 pound linguine (a thick-but-not-enormous handful)

3/4 cup mix of fresh basil, oregano and parsley

1/3 cup mix of freshly grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses

5 cloves garlic, mashed

2 cups mushrooms: Risho likes a mix of white button, cremini, portobello, morel, oyster and shiitake

1 tablespoon butter

3 teaspoons olive oil

1/4 cup pine nuts

1 lemon

1 cup pomegranate seeds

Heat two quarts of water with 1/8 cup of salt. Add the pasta when it reaches a boil. While cooking the pasta, chop the herbs, grate the cheese, mash the garlic and slice the mushrooms. When the linguini is al dente (just a receding sliver of a dry, white center), remove the noodles and toss them generously in olive oil. Set aside.

In a large skillet or wok, combine butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil on medium heat. Add pine nuts and the mashed garlic. Toss the nuts just until they start to brown. Don’t over-brown.

Add the mushrooms and stir/toss them in. Season with 1/4 teaspoon of freshly ground pepper and a kiss of salt.

When the fungi start to brown, toss in the herbs, then the pasta, then add the lemon juice.

Transfer the fragrant mixture onto a large plate, garnish with handfuls of pomegranate seeds and the rest of the grated cheese and squeeze a quarter lemon over the loaded plate.


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