When I was a little kid, growing up playing in the canyons of Southern California, one of our favorite games was hide and seek, played along the scrubby trails just beyond our backyard. If you weren’t discovered by the kid who was “it” and running for home, the greatest peril would be the possibility of someone pelting you with a ripe pomegranate plucked from the child-sized trees laced into the landscape. I had no idea at the time that the cultivated cousins of those robust little wild fruits would eventually become favorites in my (grown-up) chef’s world.
As I grew and my world expanded far beyond the hot, dusty, beloved canyons of childhood, I slowly became aware that pomegranates hold deep symbolic meaning for cultures and sects all over the world. I began to see pomegranates appear brushed onto Chinese scrolls, cast into the iron gates of courtyards in Mexico, fashioned in ruby tiles on whitewashed walls in the Middle East. My fall menus began to take on a rosy hue as I cast the seeds like jewels into salads, dropped them on long-reduced sauces that need a sparkling lift, made their juice into sorbets and ice creams and devised delicious cocktails brushed with their irreplaceable sweet sharpness.
That pomegranate juice could promote health and longevity never crossed my mind: I loved their shape, the odd little perfect crowns perched on bodies swollen with remarkably clear ruby seeds packed together so tightly it would seem impossible to pry them apart, much less count them.
But count them ancient scholars revealed they had, and irrevocably inserted the pomegranate into the compendium of food-centric prayers given on Rosh Hashanah, comparing the number of pomegranate seeds to the exact number of mitzvot listed in the Talmud and encouraging Jews as a people to fulfill every one each year.
Then, the sages entreated, eat a pomegranate on the New Year to remind God of all the mitzvoth that have been accomplished, in case our best selves might not be revealed just when we need all the good reviews we can get to be inscribed for a sweet, prosperous New Year!
A lovely pomegranate parable for the New Year from Rabbi Aron Moss, writing in the Israel National News, deals with how we can contend with feeling hypocritical about our “Jewishness” if we are not perfectly observant Jews. Every fruit has seeds but the pomegranate reveals each seed wrapped in its own fruit — each is its own “entity.” So, just as each pomegranate seed is distinct, each Talmudic commandment or mitzvah is separate and valuable; the Talmud says, “Even the most disconnected soul is full of commandments like a pomegranate.”
So, Rabbi Moss says, even “if you find yourself doing one mitzvah when you still don’t do others, you are not a hypocrite. You are a holy pomegranate.”
Here is an unusual, and unusually delicious, recipe for Rosh Hashanah to help you celebrate the holidays with the deeply flavorful, and seasonally relevant, pomegranate!
This is one of many versions of a delicious Persian pomegranate soup, warming and filling for a pre-fast meal.
3 Tbs. vegetable or olive oil
3 medium onions, sliced thin
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 cup yellow split peas
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper, divided between soup and meatballs
1 tsp. turmeric
2 cups chopped fresh parsley leaves
2 cups chopped fresh cilantro
2 cups chopped scallions
1 cup chopped fresh mint
1 medium beet, peeled and chopped
1 cup basmati (or other) rice
1/4 cup sugar or honey (optional)
2 Tbs. angelica powder (Persian: golpar see note, optional)
8 cups water
4-1/2 cups pomegranate juice
1/2 lb. ground lamb or beef
1 medium onion, grated
1/4 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. chopped parsley
2 to 4 Tbs. pomegranate seeds
Heat the oil in a large, heavy soup pot and cook the sliced onions until golden, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the crushed garlic cloves and cook until wilted and beginning to turn color. Add the yellow split peas and stir over medium heat for one minute, then add 8 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 30 min.
Add the salt, 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper, turmeric, chopped parsley, cilantro, scallions, mint and the beets. Bring back to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, make the meatball mixture by mixing together the ground meat, grated onion, 1/4 tsp. black pepper and chopped parsley. Form into balls the size of chestnuts and add to the simmering soup along with the rice. Bring back to a simmer, partially cover and cook, partially covered, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.
Stir in the pomegranate juice, sugar or honey and angelica powder, if using. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes and adjust seasoning with salt, sugar or honey and/or lemon juice or more pomegranate juice. Serve in large bowls, garnished with pomegranate seeds and the following mixture:
2 Tbs. olive oil
5 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
2 Tbs. dried mint
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat and sauté the garlic until golden. Remove from heat and stir in the mint and turmeric till thoroughly combined. Sprinkle over each bowl of soup.
Note: Angelica powder, or golpar, is commonly used in Persian (Iranian) cooking with legumes to reduce flatulence. It is also used sprinkled on pomegranate seeds just before eating and is eaten with lettuce leaves dipped in vinegar.