Pomegranates: Deep-seeded connections

When we think about special foods to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, apples and honey always seem to top the menu. But where among the new year’s daily specials do we place that seedy, sweet red ball of antioxidants — the pomegranate?

Although experience tells us that the fruit’s multitude of seeds can be as numerous as the stains it leaves on our clothing, Jewish tradition suggests something deeper. The rabbis saw the pomegranate as a symbol of abundance and its great number of seeds a reminder of the many mitzvot found in the Torah — 613. And Jewish folklore pegs the fruit as a symbol of fertility.

However, as Pom Wonderful has become an everyday part of many people’s modern health regimen, I suspect our original connection with the rimon (Hebrew for pomegranate) — which goes all the way to Exodus (28:33), where we find that images of pomegranates are to be woven into the hem of the High Priest’s robe — may have become watered down. 

To help bring our connection to the pomegranate back to that original state, my wife and I decided this spring to plant a pomegranate tree — a 4-foot-high bush, actually — in our backyard.

As it flowered, our expectations grew, blossoming into amazement when, after two months, about 15 tiny green pomegranates began to develop. Growing with the “crown” side down, the fruits reminded me of the little silver bells that often hang from the finials (often called “rimonim”) used to decorate Torah rollers. As summer heated up, true to form, the rapidly growing fruit held the promise for ringing in the new year.

Then came the attack. After finding four fruits on the ground, each with a bite taken out of it, we thought it was the work of the opossum that occasionally forages in our yard. After a few more met the same fate, our suspicions turned to a blue jay that had pecked similar holes in our tomatoes nearby. By the time we put a bird net over the bush, we had only three remaining.

With Rosh Hashanah less than two months away, I needed to find some reassurance that all this pom drama was worth it, so I called my friend Toby Wolfish, who lives in Calabasas and has a huge pomegranate tree growing in her yard.

Toby, who grew up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., — a long way from pomegranate territory — still remembers her excitement upon seeing them when she was child.

“They were a big deal at Rosh Hashanah. We were so happy to have one or two. It still is really special for me, even now on Rosh Hashanah,” she said. “We called them ‘Chinese apples.’ I never dreamt I would have one in my yard,” Toby added, quickly easing my doubts about whether my efforts were worth it.

When she and her late husband, Paul, moved into their Conejo Valley home 28 years ago, they found, to their joy, that a full-grown pomegranate tree came with it. Today, she cooks with the fruit, finding it goes well with lamb. This year she plans on making a vodka infused with the juice.

“[The seeds] are great over vanilla ice cream and soaked in vodka,” she said.

Last year, when the harvest count was 270, the tree was so bountiful that she was able to share its fruit with neighbors and her shul, and she still had enough to make jelly. She said she often uses them to decorate her sukkah, leaving me to imagine homegrown pomegranates hanging from my own temporary booth.

And yet, as of mid-August, I had only three. Each day, as the new year grows closer, I go out to inspect them, seeing how each has slowly grown into a gradually reddening handful.

Toby, who also watches her tree, observes that it serves as a timekeeper — from its barren state in winter, to when its leaves suddenly unfurl in spring before filling with orange-red blossoms as the days lengthen.

“Enjoy the beautiful fruit you will get in the coming years,” she said as our conversation ended, sending me a message better than any New Year’s card — one that held out the hope for growth and sweetness in the Rosh Hashanahs to come.

Edmon Rodman is a regular contributor and writes the Journal’s monthly Jewish history column.

Buying local produce adds spice to holiday dishes

As an avid farmers’ market shopper, I welcome the holiday season by noting what’s at the market, rather than by turning the page of my calendar. The High Holy Days are a time of endings and beginnings, and nowhere in my everyday life is this more apparent than when I visit my local market this time of year.

Certainly, the crops’ comings and goings evoke the holidays’ agrarian roots. But when I buy directly from local producers, I’m aware of subtle shifts within a season, and, if I’m really paying attention, of an accounting of the entire past year’s weather (and pests) and toil that has determined what is before me now.

This year will my family enjoy late-season figs and plums, along with new harvest dates and apples for a sweet new year? Will the season’s first pomegranates arrive in time to offer blessing for a year of plentiful merits?

Culture and tradition may dictate holiday fare, but climate and weather make the final menu decisions for me. Call it surrender or call it living on the edge, this local, seasonal approach makes every food on my family’s holiday table resonate with multiple meanings.

First of all, everything tastes better. Shopping locally is shopping in season, and foods have more flavor when grown and harvested in their true time and place. When even the potatoes and carrots are exceptional, I’m grateful to the farmers and shop with greater appreciation for the fixings for our celebration: the eggplants my mother uses in our family’s fire-roasted appetizer salad we simply call chatzilim (eggplants); bright-yolked eggs for knaedlach, and deliciously fresh, free-range chickens for roasting and grass-fed beef briskets for braising, with loads of local onions.

I rejoice in the bounty of heirloom apple varieties so honeyed that they need no adornment. But honey we must have, so I stop at the local gatherers to choose delicate orange blossom and robust buckwheat flavors.

If farmers have pomegranates, I’ll scatter pale-pink and ruby kernels over salad and rice and use the juice to glaze seasonal beets. Our table will be graced with market fruits and broomlike date blossoms.

If you’re a farmer, the connection between land and table is even more profound.

Esther Maso of Weiser Family Farms prepares Rosh Hashanah dinner from ingredients produced on the farm started by her parents 25 years ago as a retirement dream. Their Tehachapi and Lucerne Valley fields yield plenty: eggplants, peppers and beets for salads; fingerling potatoes, root vegetables, onions and garlic for roasting; and green-and-white-striped Sweet Dumpling squashes to stuff with rice, honey and cinnamon.

Known for its heirloom potatoes, the farm is now a multigenerational enterprise — Sidney, a former chemistry teacher from Boyle Heights; Raquel (from Mexico City); sons Alex and Daniel; daughter Esther, who left her job as a Hebrew day school teacher to help out; and now granddaughter Sarah, who’s an agricultural marketing student at Cal Poly Pomona.

This sense of family permeates farmers’ markets. Chefs who frequent them feel it as they seek their own favorite holiday ingredients.

Andrew Kirschner of Wilshire Restaurant wants great carrots and prunes for tzimmes-stuffed capon, because “having worked with local farmers so long, it’s special to have their foods at my own family’s table.”

Pastry chef Zoe Nathan of Rustic Canyon Seasonal Restaurant and Wine Bar gets dried pluots and plums for rugulach, and Evan Kleiman of Angeli Caffe buys armloads of leeks (that we may vanquish our enemies) for Sephardic leek patties she learned about from a friend years ago.

For me, that special ingredient is the date. In Southern California, we have a unique opportunity to connect with this ancient crop, for the desert southeast of Los Angeles produces our country’s entire supply.

Only if you shop locally do you learn that the two-and-a-half-month harvest begins just after Labor Day, and that there are many more varieties than Deglet Noor and Medjool — in early September I also find 24-hour-old Barhi, Khadrawi, Amber, Precioso and Zahidi — and that you can enjoy them, as they do in the Middle East, in varying stages of ripeness, from golden, crunchy Khalal still on the stalk to melting Rutab and the familiar, chewy dried Tamar.

I’m always overcome by their biblicalness. So is date rancher Robert Lower of Flying Disc in Thermal, Calif.

“Many a time when I’m out in the palm, with a view to the east almost unobstructed by humanity, I’m transported to what it must have been like 5,000 years ago,” Lower says. Over the millennia, there have been a few improvements to the date, but pollination and how they grow are the same as they were back then. It’s hard to improve on perfection.”

Everett Davall, another producer, tells me, “We’re so lucky to have a desert in the United States.”

Where many of us would see an arid expanse, the date grower sees fecund possibility. Isn’t that what Ecclesiastes 3:13 is all about— seeing the good in toil, finding the blessings in the not so obvious?

I’m directed to this passage by Adina Rimmon, who works at the Santa Monica market with citrus and pomegranate grower Peter Schaner. For Rimmon, a member of Beth Jacob Congregation, the physical labor, communion with farmers and customers and intense seasonality bring her closer to God.

The equally devout Catholic Schaner agrees: “I’m completely dependent on God for my existence as a farmer. I can’t ever forget that connection.”

“Getting closer to our food source gives us opportunities to explore our relationship to our fellow man, God and ourselves and find deeper symbolic meaning in ritual foods,” said the appropriately named Rimmon (Hebrew for pomegranate). “Take the pomegranate. You could say the blessing and be done, or you could also think about the fruit’s other attributes — the tree’s thorny branches, the fruit’s thick skin — the challenges required to get to the treasure inside.”

And this is perhaps the richest of all the gifts I receive by shopping locally: life lessons from passionate farmers to help me reflect and do mitzvot — support small family farms, help protect agricultural space and close the circle. Judaism isn’t easy, especially at this time of year. Neither is farming.

Flame-Roasted Eggplant Spread With Lemon and Garlic

Use traditional black-purple globe eggplants or try purple-and-white Rosa Biancas with creamy white flesh and few seeds. Either way, choose firm, shiny eggplants that are heavy for their size and free of soft spots. Although a bit messy, roasting eggplant over an open flame adds sweet smokiness and keeps the flesh white.

2 large eggplants (about 1 pound each)
4 to 6 tablespoons canola or other mild cooking oil
1 scant teaspoon minced garlic
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Kosher or sea salt
Cucumber and tomato for garnish
Challah or pita crisps to serve

Place the whole eggplants directly on the burners of a gas stove turned to medium-high or close to a medium-high fire on a grill. Roast, turning often, until the skins blacken and flake and the eggplants collapse and are meltingly tender — 10 to 15 minutes. As the eggplants start to char, the skins will tear and release steam and juices. If the skin burns before the flesh is tender, lower the flame slightly.

Remove each eggplant to a plate. Use two large spoons or spatulas to manage this. While still hot, split them open flat like a book. Scoop the pulp into a sieve set over a bowl, scraping as much as possible from the skin and leaving any juices behind. If there are a lot of seeds, remove some, and pick out any black bits of skin. Drain for 10 minutes, discard the juices and place the pulp in a bowl.

Using a whisking motion, mash the pulp with a fork, adding the oil gradually until the mixture is light and fluffy. Stir in the garlic, lemon juice and salt to taste.

The mixture will be a pale gold. It can be refrigerated for up to one day before serving. Serve at room temperature garnished with cucumber and tomato and accompanied with challah.

Makes about two cups.

Pomegranate and Orange-Glazed Beets

24 small beets, 1 to 2 inches in diameter or 3 pounds larger beets, quartered
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup orange juice
1/3 cup pomegranate juice
1 tablespoon margarine or butter

Preheat oven to 400 F. Cut off the beet greens, leaving one inch of stem attached to beets, and reserve for another use. In a large baking dish, toss the beets with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Cover pan and roast beets until almost tender when pierced with a knife, about 30 minutes, shaking the pan once during cooking time. Uncover, shake the beets again, and roast uncovered until tender, about 15 minutes more.

When cool, peel the beets using a paring knife (skins should come off easily). The beets may be prepared one day ahead and refrigerated. Return them to room temperature to finish the dish.

Pour the orange and pomegranate juices into a large skillet set over medium-high heat, and cook until juices are reduced by half and slightly syrupy, about 10 minutes. Add the beets and a little salt and pepper.

Reduce the heat to medium, and cook the beets, frequently spooning the juices over them until the juices become a very thick syrup, six to seven minutes. Stir in the tablespoon of margarine or butter, reduce the heat as needed to keep the glaze from browning and stir constantly one to two minutes until the beets are richly coated and the juices are a thick glaze. Add salt and pepper as needed.

Makes six servings.

Slow-Roasted Seasonal Fruit

Use a mix of late summer and early fall fruits, such as Golden Delicious (or other tender, quick-cooking) apples, pears, figs, peaches, prune-plums, and concord grapes. If you prefer, you can use an off-dry red wine instead of the muscat dessert wine. Serve with honey cake.

3 pounds mixed fruits
1 cup concord or red grapes
1/4 cup honey
1/3 cup muscat wine

Preheat oven to 375 F. Halve fruit and remove pits or cores, and quarter apples and pears. Place fruit cut-side up in shallow baking pan. Scatter grapes on top.

Warm the honey and drizzle over fruit. Pour wine over all and roast, basting occasionally, until fruit is tender and juicy and edges are browned, about 45 minutes.

If desired, place under a hot broiler to further crisp the fruit. Serve warm or make this early in the day and serve at room temperature.

Makes eight servings.

Roasted Potatoes, Root Vegetables, Onions, and Garlic

This recipe can be multiplied easily but use a little less oil than the math would call for. A variety of small fingerling potatoes are lovely here because they can be roasted whole. Add red or yellow carrots to the mix for extra color.

2 pounds potatoes, scrubbed and left whole if less than 2 inches in diameter or halved or quartered
1 pound each carrots and parsnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
2 onions, cut into eighths
1 small head of garlic, cloves separated but unpeeled
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 F. In a large roasting pan(s), toss all ingredients together with the olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Roast uncovered until vegetables are tender and browned, one to one and one-half hours. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Makes eight servings.

Sweet Dumpling Squash Stuffed With Honeyed Rice

Add a little or a lot of honey, depending on how sweet you would like this dish. The squashes can be baked a day ahead, filled in the morning and reheated just before serving.

8 sweet dumpling or other small, hard squashes, 8 to 10 ounces each
1 tablespoon oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 rib celery with leaves, chopped
1 cup long grain rice
1 cup each chicken stock and water or 2 cups water
1 to 3 tablespoons honey
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup currants or raisins, optional
Kosher salt

Preheat oven to 375 F. Place whole squashes on baking sheet and roast until tender, 45 to 60 minutes. Cut off tops about one inch down from crown of squashes to make lids. Use a spoon to scoop out and discard seeds and strings.
If the cavities are very small, scoop out some of the cooked meat and reserve. Squashes may be prepared to this point a day ahead and refrigerated.

In a medium pot over medium heat, sauté onion and celery with the oil, seasoning with a little salt, until translucent, five to seven minutes. Add rice to pot and cook, stirring frequently, until rice grains whiten, two to three minutes.

Stir in stock, any reserved cooked squash, half teaspoon salt, honey and currants. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover pot and cook rice until tender and all liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes.

Add cinnamon and stir rice with a fork to fluff and allow steam to escape. Taste and add salt or additional cinnamon to taste.

Fill the cavities of each squash with rice mixture, mounding but not packing the rice. Use about a third of a cup for each squash. Put squash tops on (some of the rice will show at the sides), place on baking sheet and return to oven to heat through, 20 to 25 minutes. Squashes may be filled several hours ahead; allow rice mixture to cool first.

Makes eight servings.

Recipes adapted from “The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes and Stories From the Market and Farm,” by Amelia Saltsman (Blenheim Press, 2007).

Amelia Saltsman, a Santa Monica-based writer and teacher, is an ardent supporter of local farming and the author of the award-winning “The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes, and Stories from the Market and Farm.”

Photo: Fresh veg at the Santa Monica Farmers Market

Is the pomegranate the perfect fruit?

While most Jews associate apples and bread dipped in honey with the New Year, pomegranates are considered one of the most spiritual fruits of the holiday. In addition to its many culinary delights, the pomegranate is reported to have many health benefits. Called pomum granatum by the Romans, or seeded apple, the pomegranate is one of the oldest and most beloved fruits, and some believe it was the “apple” in the Garden of Eden. Many considered it a symbol of fertility, but during Rosh Hashanah we eat pomegranates as a reminder to perform acts of good deeds. Jewish tradition says that it contains 613 seeds, the same number of laws that Jews are commanded to obey.

In Muslim tradition, Mohammed said, “Eat the pomegranate, for it purges the system of envy and hatred.”

The pomegranate has always decorated our holiday table, and last year I made a centerpiece using this colorful, regal fruit. But this year it will become part of our Rosh Hashanah dinner and to that end, I’ve created several new recipes using the seeds and juice to serve during the Jewish New Year celebration.

Pomegranates originated in Persia and in the Himalayas in northern India and were cultivated throughout the Mediterranean region as well as in China. The first pomegranate trees in California were planted by the Spanish in 1769, and the Southland’s cool winters and hot summers are the perfect conditions for the fleshy red fruit. Your neighbors might even have a tree in their backyard.

When I see pyramids of pomegranates displayed in a market it’s difficult to deny them space in my shopping cart. Buy them at your local farmers market when they are in season since they keep for several weeks in a refrigerator.

In my home it’s customary to save several pomegranates for our grandchildren to help prepare when they arrive for dinner. Their task is to peel away the outer skin, find the seeds and count them before they are served with the meal.

To peel the pomegranate, gently score the leather-like skin into quarters, and then place the entire pomegranate in a large bowl filled with water. Keeping your hands under the water, gently pull off the skin and remove the seeds, which will fall to the bottom. Carefully drain the water, discard the outer skin and fibers, and dry the seeds.

We begin our Rosh Hashanah dinner with an antipasti of salads. Start with Hummus With Pomegranate Seeds, a delicious, creamy mixture of pureed chickpeas and sesame seed paste flavored with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, served with challah, pita bread, fresh vegetables or sliced jicama. Include a Cabbage-Carrot Slaw With Pomegranate Seeds served on a bed of thinly sliced romaine lettuce and topped with a generous amount of pomegranate seeds. Both salads are tasty and colorful and take minutes to prepare with the help of a food processor.

The main course is Roasted Lamb Shanks With Pomegranate Sauce, which tastes even better the next day and can be prepared in advance. Simply reheat and serve with noodles and your favorite vegetables.

For a refreshing dessert, prepare homemade non-dairy Pomegranate and Lime Sorbet and serve it with Pomegranate Jelly-Filled Cookies that are rolled in nuts, baked and filled with a dollop of pomegranate jelly.

Hummus With Pomegranate Seeds

l can (15 ounce) garbanzo beans, with liquid
1 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
1/2 cup lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/3 cup olive oil
6 fresh parsley sprigs, stemmed
1 to 2 teaspoons salt
Pomegranate seeds for garnish

Place the garbanzo beans in a processor or blender and process until coarsely pureed.
Add the tahini, lemon juice, garlic and cumin; process until smooth. Continue processing, adding olive oil in a steady stream until well blended. Blend in the parsley leaves and l teaspoon of salt. Add additional salt to taste. Garnish with pomegranate seeds.
Makes about 3 cups.

Roasted Lamb Shanks With Pomegranate Sauce

8 lamb shanks, cut in half crosswise
1/2 cup olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 large onions, finely chopped
2 stalks of celery, thinly sliced
4 carrots, thinly sliced
1 (16-ounce) can whole or chopped tomatoes
2 large tomatoes, peeled and diced
1 (16-ounce) can tomato sauce
2 1/2 to 3 cups pomegranate juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup minced parsley
6 sprigs of fresh rosemary or 1 tablespoon dried

In a large roaster, heat the oil and sauté garlic and onions until transparent, about 5 minutes. Add the celery, carrots, tomatoes, tomato sauce and pomegranate juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper and bring to a boil.
Place the lamb over the vegetables; sprinkle with parsley and rosemary and baste lamb. Bring to a boil and bake at 375 F for two and a half to three hours, or until tender. Remove fat that forms on top and discard. Transfer sauce to a saucepan, bring to a boil and simmer until sauce is thick.
Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Pomegranate and Lime Sorbet

1 cup sugar
2 cups pomegranate juice
2 tablespoons strained fresh lime juice

In a small saucepan combine the sugar and 1 1/2 cups water, bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved, and simmer the syrup for five minutes. Transfer to a large glass measuring cup, cool and chill, covered for two hours.
Remove the syrup from refrigerator and stir in the pomegranate and lime juice.
Freeze in an ice cream freezer according to the manufacturer’s instructions until it is almost frozen. Transfer to ice cream containers and freeze until ready to serve. Serve sorbet in scoops, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.
Makes about 1 quart.