By Tori Avey
Pomegranates are one of the very first human-cultivated fruits, and they’ve played a symbolic role in various cultures and religions for centuries. Pomegranates are said to have decorated the pillars of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. In Buddhism, the pomegranate is considered one of three blessed fruits. Islamic tradition celebrates the pomegranate as a symbol of fertility. In Hinduism, the deity Ganesha is often depicted holding a pomegranate in one of his many hands. It seems fitting that pomegranates are topped with their own little crown, formally known as a calyx. Beneath the leathery red skin is an abundance of jewel-like seed casings, ready to burst forth with sweetly tart juice. You might be surprised to learn that the weapon known as a grenade, developed during the 16th century, shares its name with the French word for pomegranate. On a symbolic level, it’s easy to see why: they have a similar shape, and both are filled with “explosive” materials, though of an entirely different nature. Those juicy little pomegranate seeds have a volatile quality all their own. Apparently they even have the ability to spark original sin; some scholars speculate it was a pomegranate, rather than an apple, that was plucked by Eve in the Garden of Eden. The pomegranate is a powerful fruit indeed.
Considered to be a large berry, the pomegranate is native to Asia and the Middle East and, depending on climate, grows on small evergreen or deciduous trees. They have a short growing season that starts at the end of summer. This is one reason why they’ve become traditional fare during Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, when we eat “new fruit” (the first fruit of the season). As the Rosh Hashanah saying goes, “May we be full of mitzvot like the pomegranate…” The 613 seeds housed within the pomegranate serve as a representation of the 613 mitzvot and a reminder that our good deeds in the coming year should be plentiful. Along with wheat, barley, grapes, figs, olives, and dates, pomegranates are one of the Seven Species mentioned in the Torah representing the agricultural bounty of Israel. To this day, pomegranates are highly regarded in Jewish tradition.
In Greek mythology, pomegranates were again a source of temptation, this time leading to the changing of the seasons. In one version of the story, Persephone was captured by Hades and taken to the underworld. Her mother Demeter, goddess of fruit and fertility, was so devastated by the loss of her daughter that her sorrow prevented all plants from bearing fruit. Persephone vowed she would not eat during her time in the underworld, however she eventually indulged in a pomegranate. This slip-up bound Persephone to the underworld forever. Hades and Demeter finally came to an agreement, in which Hades would keep Persephone for a part of each year. During that time, Demeter went into mourning and the world became infertile, thus forcing the change from summer to winter.
In addition to their historical and cultural significance, pomegranates also have an abundance of nutritional benefits. As early as the nineteenth century, pomegranates were lauded for their medicinal qualities. In addition to being a major source of antioxidants, they are loaded with iron, potassium and folic acid. Thanks to their thick skin, pomegranates have a long shelf life, which was invaluable to ancient, long-distance travelers. They can be stored in a cool place for up to a month, or in the refrigerator for twice as long.
I love pomegranates for several reasons, but mostly for their versatility in cooking. The juice is a rich addition to cocktails and beverages. When cooked down to a thick, syrupy molasses, it makes the perfect glaze and sauce for salmon and brisket. Taking apart a pomegranate to get to the juice can be a daunting task, but it’s worth the effort. Try pulling apart the pomegranate underwater—the seeds will sink to the bottom and the white inner membranes and skin will float to the top, allowing you to separate the two easily. Pulse the seeds in a blender a few times, then strain them through a fine mesh strainer to extract the juice.
What better way to celebrate the Jewish New Year than with a sweetly symbolic pomegranate beverage–Rosh Hashanah Sangria! This delightful drink is a fun way to discuss the symbolism of the holiday with your guests, because it includes many traditional Rosh Hashanah ingredients…honey, apples, grapes, and of course pomegranates. Cheers to a sweet new year!
Rosh Hashanah Sangria
1/2 cup honey
1 apple, cored and sliced thin
12 oz. seedless grapes
1 bottle red wine (syrah/shiraz works well)
2 cups pure 100 percent pomegranate juice
1 cup grape juice
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup triple sec
You will also need: 2.2 liter pitcher (or larger), heavy wine glasses for serving
Total Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Kosher Key: Pareve
Pour honey and ½ cup water into a small saucepan. Heat over medium, stirring constantly, till the honey is completely dissolved into the water. Do not boil. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Meanwhile, seed the pomegranate. Discard the rind and pith. Place the pomegranate seeds into the bottom of your pitcher. Place the apple slices on top of the seeds and the grapes on top of the apple slices. Pour the entire bottle of red wine into the pitcher. Add the pomegranate juice, grape juice, brandy, triple sec, and honey simple syrup to the pitcher. Stir gently with a long handled spoon to blend all the flavors together. Chill pitcher in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before serving.
If you like your sangria less sweet and more on the tart side, you can leave out the triple sec and cut the honey in half. For a sparkly sangria, add 2 cups of ginger ale to the mix and stir just prior to serving.
For detailed step-by-step recipe photos, visit http://theshiksa.com/2011/09/24/rosh-hashanah-sangria/