Ripe, red, sweet pomegranates are beautiful to look at, but like a lot of beautiful things, they can be intimidating. The first time we tried to eat one, we were confounded by its tough skin; once we broke through it, with a spattering of juice, we were confronted with all those seeds, attached to bits of astringent yellow pith.
Then we went to Turkey. It was October, and pomegranates were everywhere. We even picked some from untended trees near the Greek ruins at Aphrodisias. That's where we learned to crack off a piece of the peel and pick out the seeds, section by section, sucking on their juice and then spitting them out so we could enjoy another mouthful.
Later, exploring the eastern Mediterranean, we learned that pomegranates are an essential ingredient for cooks from Iran to Georgia. Seeds from the sweet pomegranates we buy here in fall and winter appear in dips and salads. Juice from the sour yellow variety sold from Yemen to Tashkent, available here in concentrated form, adds a tangy note to many savory dishes.
Probably because of all those seeds, pomegranates have been a symbol of plenty and fertility ever since Persephone, daughter of the earth goddess Demeter, ate six seeds from the fruit. For this simple act, Persephone was condemned to spend part of every year in the underworld, but she was also promised rebirth each spring. So now in midwinter, dishes garnished with crimson seeds, and soups and stews enhanced with the tart richness provided by pomegranate syrup, remind us that spring is right around the corner.
Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, food writers and photographers based in Toronto, are the authors of Flatbreads & Flavors (Morrow).