Pomegranates: The Healthy, Spiritual High Holiday Fruit


When you cut open a pomegranate, first removing its turreted crown, then scoring its red, leathery skin, before breaking it apart under water (so the juices won’t squirt and stain your clothes), you are presented with sacks of glistening, abundant garnet fruit caviar.

These fruit drops are called arils, and when you bite into them, bursting through the shiny membrane, you get a spray of sweet, tart juice in your mouth, less acrid than cranberry, more nuanced than apple, before you reach the white seed, which is hard but edible and full of fiber.

This Rosh Hashanah, Jews all over the world are going to be indulging in pomegranates, a fruit that has much religious significance for the Jewish people. But the High Holidays also conveniently coincide with pomegranate season in America. In the past few years — thanks to health researchers touting the benefits of pomegranate consumption, and some large fruit companies making sure that pomegranates became a more high-profile part of the produce department — this regal-looking fruit has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in America.

For Jews, pomegranates have never gone out of style. We know that Jews have been eating pomegranate from the time that they were slaves in Egypt, because during one of those rough patches that happened while they were wandering in the desert for 40 years, they complained to Moses saying, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to this evil place? This place has no seeds, or figs or grapes or pomegranates….” Later, when God was enticing the Jews to enter Israel, God promised them a land fecund with “wheat, barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates…” which no doubt appeased the Children of Israel somewhat, seeing as they were hankering for that fruit.

Pomegranates appeared in other places, too. “Turquoise, purple and scarlet” wool pomegranates adorned the clothing of the cohen gadol (the high priest). Engraved pomegranates decorated the pillars in the First Temple, built by King Solomon. In fact, a thimble-sized, ivory pomegranate bearing an ancient Hebrew inscription is the only relic ever recovered from the Solomon’s Temple. In the “Song of Songs,” a part of the biblical canon attributed to Solomon, the comely protagonist is told that, “Your temples behind your veil are like the halves of a pomegranate,” and she is invited to go to the vineyards, to see “if the blossoms have opened, and the pomegranates are in bloom.”

But on Rosh Hashanah we eat pomegranates not as an erotic allure but as a symbol of abundant goodness. Jewish tradition holds that a pomegranate has 613 seeds, representing the 613 mitzvot that we are supposed to keep. According to Reish Lakish, a talmudic sage, even the sinners among the Children of Israel have as many good deeds as the seeds of a pomegranate. And on Rosh Hashanah, when we are being judged on high and want to accumulate points in our favor so that God will feel obliged to grant us a coming year full of health and happiness, we eat pomegranates as a symbolic gesture in the hope that our merits will increase like the seeds of a pomegranate.

Luckily, Rosh Hashanah falls at prime pomegranate time. Pomegranate shrubs grow to be 12 to 16-feet tall, and the fruits start to ripen in September, with the season lasting until December. In the past three years, California has become the largest national producer of pomegranates, thanks to efforts of a Beverly Hills-based Jewish couple, Stewart and Lynda Resnick.

The Resnicks, owners of the Franklin Mint and Teleflora, acquired some farming land in the San Joaquin Valley in the late 1980s. The land had some nut trees on it, as well as some pomegranate shrubs. The Resnicks weren’t sure what to do with the shrubs. Pomegranates were an exotic and untasted fruit for most Americans — only 5 percent had ever had on., So the Resnicks didn’t know whether it was worth keeping the plants or using the space to grow more nuts and other fruit.

But the pomegranates grown on the land were sweet and juicy, and knowing that the pomegranate came shrouded in mythology, Lynda Resnick was intrigued by the fruit. She started researching the market potential for it, and found that pomegranates many health benefits. She planted more shrubs on the land, and in 2000, when the shrubs started producing fruit, the Resnicks founded the Pom Wonderful company, named after the variety of pomegranates grown on their land. Pom Wonderful is now the largest pomegranate growing and distribution company in America.

The Resnicks started distributing the fruit to supermarkets, and squeezing the Pom Wonderful pomegranates for their juice, which they sell in bottles that look like pomegranates stacked on top of one another. They funded research into the health benefits of pomegranates, and discovered that eating the fruit can help unclog plaque-blocked arteries. They also found that pomegranates and pomegranate juice had more antioxidants than any other juice or beverage, including green tea and red wine. Antioxidants inhibit free radicals in the body, which can cause cancer, premature aging and Alzheimer’s. Finding all this out made Lynda Resnick the pomegranate’s most ardent crusader.

“I’m up all night worrying that we won’t have enough pomegranates,” she told The New York Times.

In response to this research, Pom Wonderful launched an advertising campaign promoting the fruit with tag lines like “It’s been around for 5,000 years. Drink it and you might be, too,” and “Not all miracle workers are people.” Pom Wonderful has also continued to fund pomegranate research, and is currently supporting 13 independent studies in nine universities in four countries.

Which all means that come this Rosh Hashanah, the pomegranate is not only a spiritual food to eat, but a healthy one as well.

In some Jewish households, the pomegranate will be eaten in a special Rosh Hashanah seder in conjunction with other spiritually significant foods. These foods are called the simanim (omens or signifiers), and, like the pomegranates, they symbolize good fortune for the year to come and are eaten after saying a small “yahi ratzon” (let it be thy will) prayer. Thus, gourds are eaten, because the Hebrew word for gourd is kra, which also means both read and tear, and we hope that our good deeds will be proclaimed and a bad decree (if any) torn up. We eat fenugreek because the Hebrew word for it is rubia, which also means to increase, and we hope that our merits will increase. We eat leeks or cabbage, because karsi (leeks) sounds like kares (to cut off), and we want our enemies to be cut off; beets because silka (beets) sounds like siluk (removal), and we want our enemies to be removed; and dates because tamar sounds like sheyitamu (to be consumed), which is what we want our enemies to be. (Our enemies get a real bum rap over Rosh Hashanah.) And, finally, we eat apple and challah dipped in honey, a symbol of the sweet new year.

But the pomegranate remains one of the most intriguing fruits in Jewish lore. The Talmud says that if a sage dreams of a pomegranate, it is an omen of wisdom; if an ignoramus dreams of one, it is an omen of good deeds. Jewish sages taught that the pomegranate is significant because, unlike other fruits, the red pulp, which is of primary interest to the human consumer but of little interest to the tree because it is only there to protect the seed, and the seed, which the consumer tends to throw away, are one and the same. The primary and the secondary, the future and the present part of the fruit are united. This, the sages tell us, represents a high level of blessing, a sign of totality and perfection, a perfect symbol of the New Year.

Orange Salad With Pomegranates

1 cup red onion slices, cut paper thin and broken into strips

1/2 cup lemon juice

6 large Valencia oranges

Fresh ground black pepper to taste

5 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons vinegar

1 medium-sized cucumber, pared and diced (about 1 cup)

1 cup pomegranate arils

4 ounces black, oil cured olives, preferably Moroccan

Salt to taste

1 tablespoons finely chopped mint

About one hour before making the salad, place onion slices in a bowl and marinate in lemon juice. Peel oranges and cut into thin, round slices with a very sharp knife. Cut rounds in half and pick out the seeds.

Place oranges in a large work bowl, drain onion of all excess liquid and add onion to oranges. Sprinkle mixture with pepper. Combine oil and vinegar to make the vinaigrette.

Pour over oranges, cover and set aside in a cool place to infuse for 30 minutes.

Add cucumber, pomegranate arils and olives. Adjust seasoning to taste, then scatter mint on top and serve.

Makes six servings.

Pomegranate Eggplant Relish

1/3 cup olive oil

1 medium eggplant, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch squares

1 medium red onion, diced small

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 cup tomato juice

1 cup pomegranate juice

1/3 cup of sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint

1/2 cup pomegranate arils

Combine pomegranate juice and sugar in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until reduced to 1/3 cup. Remove from flame and cool.

In a large sauté pan, heat oil over high heat until hot, but not smoking.

Add eggplant and cook, stirring until well-seared and quite soft, about five to seven minutes.

Reduce heat to medium, add onion and cook, stirring, for two to three minutes.

Add garlic and continue to stir for one minute.

Add in tomato juice and pomegranate syrup and bring just to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for five minutes.

Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Score a whole pomegranate and place in a bowl of water. Break open the pomegranate to free the arils. The arils will sink to the bottom of the bowl and the membrane will float to the top. Sieve and put the arils into a separate bowl.

Stir in mint and pomegranate arils and serve hot or cold with crackers, bread, or over chicken.

Makes four cups.

Pomegranate-Honey Roasted Game Hens

1 cup pomegranate juice*

1/2 cup honey

1/2 teaspoon coriander

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

6 clove of garlic, chopped

3 game hens, split in half

Salt and pepper to taste

3 tablespoons honey

* For one cup of juice, put 1-1/2 to 2 cups of arils and seeds in a blender; blend until liquefied. Pour mixture through a cheesecloth-lined strainer or sieve.

Garnish:

1/2 cup of pomegranate arils

Chopped roasted pistachio nuts

Mix pomegranate juice, 1/2 cup

honey and spices. Pour over hens.

Cover, and marinate overnight or for eight hours in the refrigerator. Turn occasionally.

Preheat oven to 450 F.

Drain hens, reserving marinade. Simmer marinade in small saucepan over medium heat for 10 minutes; reserve.

Season hens with salt and pepper.

Bake at 450 F, basting frequently with reserved marinade, until hens are just firm to touch, about 25 minutes.

Remove hens from oven; let rest covered with a ten towel for five minutes. Brush each half with 1/2 tablespoon honey.

Score a whole pomegranate and place in a bowl of water. Break open pomegranate to free the arils. The arils will sink to the bottom and the membrane will float to the top. Sieve and put the arils into a separate bowl.

Garnish hens with pomegranate arils and chopped pistachios.

This recipe can also be made with chicken.

Makes six servings

Recipes courtesy POM Wonderful.

Taking the Schmaltz Out of Our Food


At sundown on Monday we usher in the happiest day of our calendar, Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. For the next 10 days we’ll be called upon to reexamine our lives — to wake up and not only smell the roses, but plant them for other people to enjoy.

The Days of Awe end at sundown on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we’ll spend the day in temple fasting and praying. Our sundown to sundown fast brings us agony and ecstasy as we internalize how fleeting life is, promise to make amends for acts we’re not proud of, realize we have a whole new year ahead of us to make a difference.

As we hurriedly leave the temple with visions of chopped liver, lokshen kugel and our beloved cheese blintzes dancing in our heads, we know it’s just a matter of moments before we can eat.

Lately though, we’ve had to rethink this. Though it’s a beloved family tradition to break the fast with our favorite Ashkenazi dishes, we also know they contain ingredients that top the cardiologist’s list of no-no’s — red meat, schmaltz, cottage cheese, sour cream and butter. Fat, fat and more fat.

In response, creative Jewish cooks have been hard at work adapting these recipes. And, as rabbi and cookbook author Gil Marks says, with a laugh, "Healthy Jewish cooking is no longer an oxymoron."

Marks modifies traditional holiday recipes in "The World of Jewish Entertaining" (Simon & Schuster, 1998). He uses meat sparingly, as a flavoring instead of the main event. He also uses recipes from the Sephardim, who migrated to areas as diverse as North and South Africa, the Middle East, India and later to the Mediterranean countries of Spain, Italy, Portugal, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Their cuisine revolved around the three main ingredients mentioned in the Bible: grains, wine and olive oil.

As for our traditional Ashkenazi delicacies, which nourish our souls more than our bodies, Marks substitutes yogurt for sour cream in blintzes, kugels and borsht, uses olive oil instead of schmaltz for chopped liver — or even eliminates liver altogether in favor of a pate of mushrooms, onions and string beans. Instead of stuffing chicken with oil-soaked bread cubes, he suggests apples and spinach, traditional ingredients for the New Year.

Marks has also gone where few men have ventured before him — perfecting a recipe for whole wheat challah, which subtracts eggs and extra fat, adding whole wheat, wheat germ and honey for moisture. He sweetens dishes with fruits instead of sugar. But, he cautions, "Be smart with substitutions. Don’t serve a dish just because it’s low fat. Experiment until you’re happy with the flavor."

Since we’re trying to modify tradition, not break it, instead of asking a Jewish matriarch for our Break the Fast menu, we went to premier Jewish chef and caterer, David Rubell, who serves the Break the Fast Meal at Temple Shalom for the Arts in Los Angeles.

Rubell learned about "food from the old country" from the closest person to him — his Nana Willner. "On Yom Kippur, she’d shine," he says. "Because she knew she’d be in shul all day, and exhausted when she got home, she developed a technique that I, as a caterer, use to this day.

"Nana was meticulously organized. The day before Yom Kippur, she’d assemble her ingredients, then slice, dice, and, in some cases, partially cook, then refrigerate the dishes. When she got home from shul, she’d finish each recipe and have it on the table — piping hot or ice cold — almost instantly. Nothing ever tasted like it had been sitting in the refrigerator all night. Everything was always delicious.

"I learned another lesson from Nana," Rubell says slyly. "Seltzer water in matzah balls. ‘Most people use fat, eggs and too much matzo meal,’ she’d scoff, in her inimitable Russian-Brooklyn accent. ‘And they handle them too much. Of course, they’re like lead.’

"Not my Nana’s," he says. "Hers were always light as a feather. I used to laugh, because when we’d eat at my other grandma’s, Nana Rubell, her matzah balls were like sinkers. We never told her our secret.

"When Nana made blintzes she’d insist on filling them with pot cheese. When she couldn’t find it, she’d substitute Farmer’s. Of course, she’d grouse every time. The mystery ingredient in her sweet blintzes was salt. Just like the infamous spoonful of sugar, ‘A pinch of salt makes us remember who we are and where we came from,’ she’d tell me. ‘Life is not all sweetness and honey. Never forget that!’ This is especially relevant on Yom Kippur, which is all about that little dose of reality," Rubell muses.

As Rubell grew older and started working as a professional chef, his beloved nana took sick with pancreatic cancer. He trudged down to Florida and cooked her all of her favorite meals. "That meant more to her than anything," he says, his eyes welling up. It made him start thinking about lightening the traditional Jewish foods he’d grown up with.

Today when he’s doing a menu, he starts with the dishes she’d taught him, then replaces them with healthier variations.

For example, Rubell replaces the customary sour cream topping for the blintzes with fresh berry compote. Instead of sweet, heavy babkas that "will lay in your stomach for the next three days," he’ll serve a fresh peach cobbler. Since tuna salad with gobs of mayo is a staple on many buffets, Rubell created savory Chinese Seared Ahi Tuna Salad. Instead of the traditional sweet, heavy kugel, he’ll serve a vegetable frittata. According to Rubell, "We never forget our cultural traditions, but we’re reinterpreting them for today’s healthier lifestyles."

Have a happy and healthy New Year!


Recipes for taking out the Schmaltz from Jewish food

All recipes from Chef David Rubell.

Smoked Whitefish Salad (A favorite of Theodore Bikel’s)
Smoked Trout may be substituted for the whitefish.

1 smoked whitefish, approximately 2 lbs., carefully boned
1/3-1/2 cup mayonnaise (low fat or regular)
1 bunch scallions, green part only, sliced thin

Pulse all ingredients in food processor until just smooth. Refrigerate. Serve as appetizer with crackers or challah, or as first course with baby greens and tomato.

Serves 8 to 10.

Chinese Seared Ahi Tuna Salad with Mango

1/2 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon wasabi
1 1/2 pounds, fresh ahi tuna
1/4 cup canola oil
1 One-pound package wonton skins
1 quart canola oil for frying noodles
1/2 Six-ounce package saifun or dry
bean thread noodles, broken in half
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1/4 cup dry roasted, salted cashews
1 head iceberg lettuce, sliced very thin
1/2 head Savoy cabbage, sliced very thin
2 bunches green onion, green part sliced diagonally
2 mangoes, peeled and sliced thin

For Dressing:
2 ounces pickled ginger
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 bunch scallions, white only
1 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup Chinese sweet and sour sauce
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup toasted sesame oil

Mix together soy sauce and wasabi. Marinate tuna in mixture for 20 minutes. Sear tuna in hot, nonstick skillet with 1/4 cup oil approximately 1 minute per side. Refrigerate immediately after removing tuna from heat. Allow to cool at least 1/2 hour before slicing for salad. Slice tuna into 1 1/2 inch pieces, reserving odd sizes to incorporate into body of salad.

Slice wonton skins into very thin julienne strips. Fry noodles in very hot oil in 3 separate batches, so as not to decrease oil temperature. Cook noodles approximately 1 minute, tossing constantly. Drain on paper towels.

Bring oil back to temperature. Fry saifun noodle halves separately from each other as they expand rapidly upon hitting the oil. Turn once, remove from pot; drain on paper towel. Repeat until all noodles are fried.

For Dressing:

Place all ingredients in blender and mix for 3 minutes.

To Assemble:

Reserving small handful of wonton noodles and nuts for garnish, toss with dressing, lettuce, cabbage, green onion, nuts, saifun and wonton noodles, and odd pieces of tuna. Place on platter; arrange remaining tuna slices and mangoes decoratively around salad. Top with additional noodles and nuts.

Serves 8 to 10.

Holiday Cheese Blintzes Topped with a Trio of Fresh Berries

(This recipe is from David’s beloved Nana Willner, who told him, “With every bit of sugar, you need a pinch of salt.”)

The pancakes may be purchased ready-made in the produce section of the supermarket.

For the pancake batter: