It is this time of year in the northeast--when the ground is frozen, the trees are bare, and gray skies and brown earth dominate the landscape--that traditional Mediterranean foods have heightened appeal. While the local, cold-stored potatoes, carrots, and squashes make hearty, warming comfort food, the bright sweet-tartness of citrus and pomegranates offer a break from the tedium of winter and remind us that the sun is still shining and encouraging growth somewhere.
Citrus and pomegranates have long been part of Mediterranean cuisine. Pomegranates, native to Persia (modern-day Iran), spread throughout the Mediterranean region in ancient times, appearing in North Africa, Greece, and Turkey around 2000 BCE. And Arab influence spread the use of citrus into European kitchens prior to the Middle Ages.
Pomegranates and citrus fruits bring a delightful sweet-sour quality to traditional Mediterranean dishes. Lemon juice flavors staple sauces like tahini and hummus, and is used to dress vegetable and grain salads. Lemon and garlic enhance vegetables like artichokes, as well as seafood and meat dishes. Pomegranate molasses (made by reducing pomegranate juice, often with lemon juice and sugar) adds depth of flavor to vegetables like okra and eggplant, while arils (the succulent juice-filled seed sacs) add texture and tang to a variety of vegetarian and meat dishes.
Citrus fruits offer a range of options for cooking both sweet and savory dishes thanks to their edible flesh, juice, and zest. Citrus contains several antioxidants that may help prevent chronic health concerns like heart disease and certain cancers, and also is a source of fiber (from the flesh), vitamin C, calcium, potassium, folate, and vitamin A.
If citrus fruits play an important supporting role in Mediterranean cooking, pomegranates are the superstars. The leathery fruit with ruby red arils captured the collective culinary and artistic imaginations of cultural groups throughout the Mediterranean region and the world. Islamic legend suggests that one seed of every pomegranate comes directly from paradise. Jewish legend tells that every pomegranate has 613 seeds, one for each of the 613 commandments of the Torah. Pomegranates symbolize rebirth, spiritual fruitfulness, and chastity in Christian art. And they represent fertility in Bedouin and Chinese cultures. Pomegranate arils, juice, and molasses all appear in traditional Mediterranean cooking and make great ingredients for healthy contemporary cooking in the Mediterranean style.
Pomegranates are often called a "super fruit" because of their nutritional content. They are high in antioxidants, and also contain vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin B5, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, zinc, iron, and fiber. It's no wonder this fruit, with its tantalizing sweet-tart flavor in a stunningly beautiful package, has been celebrated for thousands of years!
So join the celebration and pick up a pomegranate and some citrus on your next trip to the grocery store. Here are our tips for making the most of your fruit:
Click on a photo or recipe title below to link to the full recipe:
- Eating a piece of citrus fruit or the arils of a pomegranate provide more nutritional value than drinking the juice.
- Experiment with different types of citrus. Blood oranges taste different than navel oranges; Meyer lemons are sweeter than Eureka (or "regular") lemons; grapefruits come in a range of colors from white to deep red; and kumquats--which can be eaten whole--have a peel that is sweeter than the flesh.
- Avoid the bitter white pith when zesting citrus fruits, use just the colored part of the peel for the best flavor.
- To remove the arils from a fresh pomegranate, score the flesh of the pomegranate in quarters (from crown to bottom). Fill a large bowl with water. Holding the fruit under the water, pull the quarters apart and push the skin inside out to remove the arils. Discard the membrane that floats on top of the water and drain the water from the arils. Store the arils in a container with a tight-fitting lid in the refrigerator for up to a week.
- Skip the juicer when pressing pomegranates. Wrap arils in cheese cloth and gently squeeze them to release juice into a bowl.
- Check out 12 Great Ways to Use Pomegranates for ideas on how to use pomegranate arils, juice, and molasses in your cooking.