When I was a kid, we lived in one house longer than any other. 1715 Westwood Place, in Pomona, California. The rhythm of that address often repeats in my head, a mantra I can’t quite shake. No matter how many places I have lived in the world, that one feels like the most enduring. A little box house, nothing special except that it was ours, with swarms of memories, too many to write here, and some I don’t want to share.
But there was something unusual about that house: in back, crowded up against the cement patio, was a pomegranate tree. It shadowed the small square of grey where I learned to rollerskate, around and around on my large, clunky wheels. And in the fall, my arc was cut shorter by the splat of murderous red etched onto the grey. That tree grew so many pomegranates that we could never eat them all. Overly large and ready to split, they fell to their deaths, cracked on the cement, splayed open. The bluejays came by to steal their seeds. And the patio was smeared with sticky red, until the torrential rains of December came and washed it all away for another year.
This pomegranate tree, along with the avocado tree in the backyard, in the pounded-down dirt of a small Southern California lawn, seemed normal to me. They were what I knew. Early on, I regarded the exotic as daily, necessary, something like home. When I first traveled to Ireland, I was astonished to discover that I couldn’t find any vegetables besides potatoes. Now, I adore potatoes. These days, they are daily on my plate. But an entire lifetime with nothing but potatoes? And Nic, the Irish nanny for the CFP, ate her first avocado in London, which had been brought to the house in the back of a black taxi from Harrods. I can’t imagine my life without avocadoes.
And I can’t imagine not knowing pomegranates. Their fleshy seeds, rich in red, juicy in the mouth, seem completely normal to me. Hard to extract, perhaps, but that made them all the more worthwhile in my eyes. They also looked like little magenta teeth to me. And I adore their harsh sweetness, the crisp crunch of the little seeds that seem to not yield at first. They have the texture of cartilage, a bit. They need concentrated chewing. And after the first burst of overpowering taste, like little fists pounding at the inside of the mouth, the flavor drops away and they become mainly texture. A lingering. Memorable. Nothing else like it.
For some reason, however, I hadn’t been eating pomegranates for awhile. In New York, and in London, they were only offered at far more exotic prices than I could afford. Maybe I just resented having to pay for a fruit I used to be able to pick out of the hazy sunshine above my head, for free. It’s possible they simply disappeared from grocery stores for awhile.
But they’ve made a resurgence. And how. Pomegranate juice, as you probably know, is the latest health fad in food. Rich in antioxidants, as well as taste, pomegranates have supposed benefits longer than I can list here. (If you want to know more, try this.) Squat, curvy bottles of the rich purple liquid started showing up in the refrigerated portion of the produce section a couple of years ago. At nearly $5 a bottle. It’s too powerful, by far, to drink straight. It’s best if you cut it with water or another juice. But still, that’s just too fricking expensive to pay for juice.
However, the ubiquitity of the bottles sold by the Pom Wonderful company seems to have inspired the re-emergence of the pomegranate in traditional grocery stores. (However, most of them seem to have the Wonderful label on them, meaning that one company is selling the fruit and the juice. Excuse me if I sound silly, but I just hate the corporatization of produce.) Now, nearly every grocery store I have been in this autumn stocks them in fat pyramids of lumpy red globes. And I’ve been eating them all autumn.
Eating pomegranates became far easier when I read this helpful post from In Praise of Sardines on how to remove the seeds without dealing with the pith. It looked so remarkably easy, and good for removing aggression, that I immediately pulled the pomegranate from my organic produce box and tried it myself. It works. And how. And then I read this post about pomegranates by Shuna from Eggbeater, with a photograph of her whacking the fruit with a heavy-handled knife. (She’s fierce, that one.) Possibilities of pomegranates danced in my head. Simply, I tossed the juicy seeds in spinach salads with goat cheese. I could eat one of those salads every day. Believe it or not, pomegranate seeds are gorgeous in homemade guacamole. And I thought about juicing them, instead of buying the little bottles at exorbitant prices.
But then I discovered pomegranate molasses.
Okay, maybe the entire foodie community has already discovered pomegranate molasses, long ago. But it just started creeping into my consciousness. Molly mentioned that she had carried a jar back from Manhattan on one of her last jaunts. Hm, if it’s that special, why am I not eating it? I noticed it in scrumptious-looking recipes in Cooking Light. I usually quite like their recipes. What did they know that I don’t know? And finally, after my foot had been broken, my friend Dorothy brought me a little jar of the elixir. She had been so obsessed with the idea of cooking with it that she had bought a jar online, probably for ridiculous prices. How kind of her to share with me. She’s like that, Dorothy.
So I dipped my little finger into the dark liquid, and sipped from its tip. A wave of that tangy, assertive sweetness from pomegranate seeds, followed by the dark allure of molasses. Bright and alive, no blandness here. And it lingered, long after I had sucked the last dregs from my finger. I knew right then that I had to cook with it.
I’m certain there are a thousand uses. I tried a bit in my nonfat Greek yogurt, and it made me smile, divinely. And I hunted around online for further recipes. Finally, I settled on my own modification of a Turkish dish a colleague had told me about, when she recounted stories from her time in Turkey. When I told Dorothy about it, on our morning car ride to school talking about food, she exclaimed she had made something like it from a Cooking Light recipe last year. Well, that was enough for me. I wasn’t making it entirely. Just dancing with something already in place.
That night, I had Meri and Eric over for dinner. There were a dozen little dishes, a flurry of appetizers, and me standing flushed and expectant in front of the stove. We three know how to laugh, and so we did. Repeatedly. Eric grew up with a fairly traditional palate, so he always looks askance, and almost grimaces, when I tell him what I’m making. But this autumn, I’ve managed to introduce him to foods he never would have eaten before. And he always ends up smiling, or pounding his thigh with how good it tastes. And so, that night, no exception. When I told him I was making chicken thighs, with cashews and pistachios, quick braised in lemon zest and pomegranate molasses, he stared at me. But when he took his first bite, he looked up to the sky for a moment, then groaned with the gorgeous taste. Immediately, he raised his wine glass. Meri and I did too. And here’s the toast he gave us: “To the night that Shauna is now officially not kidding around.”
Thank you, Eric. I do believe you’re right.
Chicken Thighs with Pomegranate Molasses
I don’t know why it has taken me this long to learn to cook chicken thighs. Dense with taste and filled with flavor from the fat, these are the perfect part of the chicken for braising. Somehow, after eating this recipe, chicken breast just seems so bland now.
This concoction takes so little time that you’ll be amazed at the multiplicty of tastes within it. And it’s sure to impress your most recalcitrant guest.
4 chicken thighs (organic if possible)
4 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of butter
1 large white onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic
1/4 cup of cashews
1/4 cup of pistachios, raw and unsalted
zest of one lemon
juice of that lemon
4 tablespoons of pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon of sugar
1/2 teaspooon of salt (or to taste)
1 1/2 cups of chicken stock
°Slowly heat two tablespoons of the olive oil, along with the butter, in a heavy saucepan or skillet. When the beautiful mixture has become hot liquid, add the chicken thighs. Brown them, quickly, just a minute or two on each side. Set them aside. Keep warm.
°Add the onion to the leftover oil and butter, and cook until soft. About two minutes in, add the garlic as well.
°When they are both soft and golden, throw in the nuts. Stir these continuously until they are golden, about five minutes. Don’t leave them for a moment. They’ll burn, easily.
° At this point, add the chicken stock, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Bring this to a boil. Add the sugar. Heat. Add salt and pepper to taste.
°Bring the chickens back. Place them in this fragrant bath and simmer them, on medium-low heat, for about twenty minutes, or until they are tender.