You’re Going to Want to Get Pomegranates Right Now

This celebrated wintertime fruit has a sweet-tart taste that adds a welcome brightness to any meal.

Pomegranates are round, red fruits that grow on shrub-like trees in South Asia, California and the Mediterranean regions of Europe. Botanically, pomegranates are considered a berry, but visually they’re in a class all their own. A smooth outer skin contains a white membrane which holds the pomegranate arils, the thin skin and pulp which surround the small, white seeds. The arils hold the bright, ruby-red juice of the pomegranate, which has a refreshingly sweet-tart taste, while the thick skin and membrane are inedible.

(Related: 13 Fall Superfoods Nutritionists Recommend Eating)

How pomegranates are grown

Pomegranates start out as red-orange flowers that bloom in the springtime. The flowers release a distinctive fragrance that attracts bees and encourages pollination, and in a spectacular feat of nature, as the pomegranate flower is pollinated, each pomegranate aril is created from a piece of pollen. As the growing season goes on, the flower balloons out into the pomegranate, leaving a flared crown on the end which gives each fruit a regal look.

Mediterranean climates are ideal for growing pomegranates, as they thrive in warm climates with limited humidity. The hot, sun-filled days ripen the arils on the inside, while the cool nights turn the outer skin from green to red. Pomegranates are ready to harvest by autumn and are available from October through January.

Pomegranates through history

What do the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, Renaissance royalty, doctors and artists all have in common? A deep-seeded obsession with pomegranates.

Across cultures and religions from Hinduism to Christianity, pomegranates have been a symbol of prosperity, and represented fertility and regeneration. In ancient Egypt pomegranates symbolized the promise of an afterlife, and pomegranate-shaped vases have been found in the tombs of pharaohs. They’re considered a cure for ailments like coughs and liver issues, and today, pomegranates still appear on the coat of arms of the British Medical Association as an emblem of healing.

Once you’ve been tipped off to the cultural prominence of pomegranates, you start to notice that the fruit makes cameos in artwork and writing everywhere, spanning centuries. Like the fruit version of Where’s Waldo, you’ll spot pomegranates in multiple works, like those by the great Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli (of Sistine Chapel fame), modern painter Salvador Dali’s surrealist scenes and even in the pages of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

If you’re feeling inspired, channel good fortune and health for the year ahead and include pomegranates on your table, too.

(Related: Your Game Plan for Small-Scale, Stress-Free Holiday Meals)

Pomegranate health benefits

In ancient times, pomegranates were touted as a giver of life and fertility, and while these claims may be a bit grandiose nowadays, there are present-day benefits, too.

Pomegranates are best known for their high antioxidant content, especially punicalagin, a potent antioxidant present in the pomegranate’s juice and peel. Our gut bacteria and stomach acid convert punicalagin into urolithins, dynamic active compounds that have a range of health benefits, such as helping to lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation. They have anticancer effects, too. Because of these powerful compounds, pomegranate juice has three times the antioxidant activity as red wine or green tea.

Pomegranate arils are also a good source of fibre, which keeps you feeling full and satisfied, and vitamin C, which contributes to healthy immune function.

Don’t forget about the pomegranate seeds. Punicic acid, the primary essential fatty acid in pomegranate seeds, also has unique health benefits, like lowering levels of harmful LDL cholesterol and improving responses to insulin (the hormone that controls blood sugar), resulting in an antidiabetic effect.

What to look for

Pomegranates are at their ripest when picked, but look for firmness and size when shopping. Seek out pomegranates with firm flesh and avoid those that have turned a deep red or whose skin is wrinkled—those are signs of age. And pick a pomegranate that feels heavy for its size — it means it’s full of juice! Pomegranates will keep on the counter for about 10 days or up to a few weeks in the refrigerator before drying out.

How to use pomegranates

Pomegranates are often called the “jewel of winter,” an appropriate name as they add a welcome pop of colour to an otherwise monochrome palette of winter foods. A sprinkle of pomegranate seeds as a garnish instantly turns any dish into the sparkly centerpiece of a meal. Add the seeds to morning yogurt or oatmeal, salads, side dishes like rice pilafs, or as a garnish for dips or roasted vegetables. For a stunning end to a meal, try adding the seeds to a whipped cream-topped pavlova or trifle.

You can also purchase pure pomegranate juice, which contains high levels of antioxidants and makes a wonderful (and healthful) addition to cocktails, mocktails or smoothies. Try using it instead of cranberry juice in a festive punch for a fun spin on a classic.

Another pomegranate offshoot is pomegranate molasses, which is made from boiling down the juice until reduced to a thick, dark syrup. This concentrates the flavours, and the result is actually slightly sour, not sweet, making it ideal in savoury cooking. It makes a great glaze for grilled chicken, can be whisked into salad dressings or drizzled as a final touch for roasted carrots, imparting a depth and complexity that add a can’t-put-your-finger-on-it oomph.

Whether it’s adding them to your morning oatmeal or jazzing up a charcuterie board, pomegranates will make whatever you use them for both merry and bright.

Prep Tip: Pomegranate seeds can be difficult to remove from the membrane. The easiest way to remove them is to cut the pomegranate in half, then hold the half cut side down over a large bowl and whack it with the back of a wooden spoon. The bowl will catch the pomegranate seeds and your palm will help the membrane stay put.

Next: A Recipe for Spice-Roasted Carrots with Yogurt and Antioxidant-Rich Pomegranate Seeds

Originally Published in Best Health Canada