The early season pomegranates, piled high in crates like gigantic jewel-toned berries, have arrived at the local markets. Several vendors -- Mark Boujikian Farms, K&K Ranch, Walker Farms, Burkart Organics, J&J's Lone Daughter Ranch, and many others -- grow some early-bearing varieties of the ancient Persian fruit. Happily, "early" in this case is not synonymous with "not quite ready."
The most common variety of pomegranate grown in California is the Wonderful and all its derivate varieties. Burkart has the original Wonderful available while Mark Boujikian has the Early Wonderful out. K&K Ranch has a variety called Early Foothill. Both are fantastic eating, but do have subtle differences worth noticing. The Early Foothill veers on the large side for an early variety (think small grapefruit), with a deep garnet-colored skin and luminous red seeds that have very low acidity and a juicy pom sweetness that is almost cherry like. The Early Wonderful is a little smaller by comparison, and can have pink to red skin, with light pink to nearly wine-colored arils inside. It has a great balance of acidity and sweetness, and can sometimes surprise you with a complex citric tartness.
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Anissa Helou, one of the most knowledgeable and prolific food writers focusing on Middle Eastern cuisine (though we also loved hearing about her food trip to China last year), recently posted a thoroughly detailed and loving treatise of how to peel and eat an pomegranate. It's a must-read for novice and seasoned pom eaters alike.
And to add a little California connection, the pale pink pomegranate Helou features in her post is a later season variety here in California. J&J's Lone Daughter Ranch is on hiatus until November, but when they come back to the markets, they'll be bringing that pale pink pomegranate to their stands. It has a similar, bold sweetness to the Wonderful, but with pale, nearly translucent arils that make the usual pink hand staining a non-issue.
The pomegranates that come home with us rarely make it past fresh eating. But the uses for pomegranates in cooking and preserving are nearly endless. Juice them with steam for jelly. Cook them down and strain them into pomegranate molasses, a thick, syrupy and carmelized version of the original that makes a great Persian version of a kir royale. Pomegranate is also the vital ingredient in making your own grenadine. And of course, there's chiles en nogada, the national dish of Mexico which is incomplete without being generously studded with the bright red seeds.
The early varieties of pomegranate will be in for another week or two, after which we'll enjoy the long slow harvests of other varieties well into winter. And if you're looking to pick your own, The Farmer's Kitchen in Hollywood will be conducting one of their preservation tours on Saturday, October 15th. Attendees will travel out to the Workman Temple Museum in Industry where the groundskeepers tend to a long grove of 100 year old pomegranate trees. The tour group has been given special permission to harvest the fruit, which will be taken back to the Farmer's Kitchen for a preservation class. Tickets are $120. For more information, visit The Farmer's Kitchen website.