Pomegranate Symbolism for Spring

Pomegranates have been used as symbols to conjure everything from lust and sexual abandon, to fertility and prosperity, to blood and national identity, and even, as in Persephone’s case, death and rebirth. Pomegranates have been with us since the beginnings of civilization and their image has meanings that span the entirety of human existence. Read more about pomegranates on Zester Daily – HERE.

Pomegranate Spring

Lamb in a Pomegranate-Cardamom Sauce

With the autumn holidays rapidly approaching many of us are starting to give thought to what to prepare. A delicious main-course for omnivores is my Lamb in a Pomegranate-Cardamom Sauce pictured below.  It is an original recipe based on Azeri/Iranian Fesenjan that is the best one-pot meal in town.  Tender, juicy lamb is braised in a mouth-watering sweet and sour sauce that is served on  a ground of butternut squash and walnuts.

Lamb in a Pomegranate-Cardamom Sauce

The recipe is available in a Thanksgiving Recipe collection published by Swoop and available here. There are many other delicious recipes in the e-book as well, and all proceeds go to the Feeding America charity that is more necessary than ever in the wake of Huricane Sandy.  Feed others and eat well yourself – who can beat that!  (Words and photo of Lamb in a Pomegranate-Cardamom Sauce by Laura Kelley).

Click here for other Silk Road Thanksgiving Recipes

The Color of Pomegranates

Young Man Selling Pomegranate Juice

He grabbed a pomegranate from the table next to him and flashed a shy smile my way as I approached. I nodded and a quick flash of steel followed by a skilled twist and the fruit was open. He placed half on the machine, spun the wheel and a few seconds later blood-red juice flowed from it’s silver jaws into my glass. The scent was light but complex and the taste, sweet and tart and almost unbearably delicious. This was nothing like the bottled juice full of citric acid or sugar that one finds in US markets, this was Isfandiyar’s nectar, a wonderful treat!

Domesticated in Mesopotamia by the third millenium BCE (and possibly well before), pomegranates have also been recovered from later Bronze Age archaeological sites in Israel and Cyprus. The Egyptians had orchards full of pomegranate trees by the time of Hatshepsut’s rule (1479-1458 BCE), and the Phoenicians were an important force in spreading the fruit across North Africa and into Southern Europe as their seaward empire grew. The spread north and eastward was across the ancient network of land and maritime trade routes we have come to call the Silk Road.

As the fruit has been traded and adopted, many cultivars have been selected for that vary in fruit and seed color, sweetness, acidity, and astringency. The fruits themselves vary in color from a creamy off-white, to yellow, to the familiar shades of pink and red to a dark, to an almost-black purple. Seeds (sometimes called arils) also vary in color from crimson to a clearish-white color.

Pomegranates have been used as symbols to conjure everything from lust and sexual abandon, to fertility and prosperity, to blood and national identity and even death and rebirth. They have been with us since the beginnings of civilization and their image has meanings that span the entirety of human existence. Think on that as you anticipate the fruit of this year’s harvest. Above all, when they finally arrive, drink a fresh glass of juice and know the taste of heaven. (Words and photo of a Young Man Selling Pomegranate Juice by Laura Kelley).

Mesopotamian Cookoff Entry 6 – Pigeon with Herbs by Laura Kelley

Wild and domesticated artiodactyls cows, sheep, deer, gazelle etc. were an important part of the Mesopotamian diet. But based on archaeological assemblages of bones, domestic and wildfowl were perhaps more important than the larger hoofed creatures. At some sites the number of bird bones greatly exceeds the number of medium-sized mammal bones, and are also found with bones from fish, shellfish claws and mollusk shells. So in terms of meat, the Mesopotamian diet was quite varied indeed.

Today’s entry in the Mesopotamian Cookoff is a fowl dish based on the ingredients from Yale Culinary Tablet 26 – Recipe 2, a dish that I call, Pigeon with Herbs. The ingredients are: pigeon, salt, water, fat, vinegar, semolina, leek, garlic, shallots, tulip bulb, yogurt or sour cream, and “greens”. But how these are put together and in what quantities – aye, there’s the rub (pun intended).

Fowl with Herbs

I was intrigued with this recipe because of the mint and vinegar combination – which seems to be a fairly common ingredient combination for fowl dishes in the cuisine evident from the Yale culinary tablets. I’ve cooked with these ingredients in a modern Afghan recipe for Spicy Eggplant with Mint available in The Silk Road Gourmet and really like the play of the sour and sweet together. It is interesting to note that this combination is still in play in regional cuisines almost 4,000 years after the recipes were recorded on the tablets.

Straight out the gate, let me confess that I used Cornish hen instead of pigeon or dove because that’s what I had on hand. They are a bit meatier than pigeon, so if you decide to cook pigeon, quail or chicken in this manner, adjustments in cooking time and quantities of ingredients will be necessary.

I also used one of my favorite ingredients in the dish – pomegranate vinegar – because pomegranates were enjoyed in Mesopotamia and the recipe called for vinegar. I get my pomegranate vinegar at a large Asian market near our home. This ingredient makes the dish, and the use of different vinegar would really change the flavor. That said, there are many different types of vinegar out there, so feel free to experiment, but quantities used will have to be adjusted according to type and concentration of vinegar.

I also flavored the water the fowl is boiled in quite a bit. The recipes state that the water is “prepared”. I took this to mean flavored to influence both the flavor of the fowl and the flavor of the sauces or gravy that is produced at the end. Having served and enjoyed the birds at table (they were terrific!), I think that this step is crucial and might be overlooked in the recipe.

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Pigeon with Herbs by Laura Kelley

Ingredients
2 Cornish game hens, cleaned and salted inside and out
4 cups water
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup pomegranate vinegar
3 tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon asafetida
2 teaspoons dried mint
2 tablespoons coriander seed
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 large Sri Lankan cinnamon stick
1 handful baby arugula, chopped

½ yellow onion
1 leek, white and green parts, well cleaned
6-7 garlic cloves, peeled
½ cup lightly drained yogurt

3 handfuls of fresh mint leaves
1 handful of fresh sage
4 garlic cloves, peeled
Water to moisten herbs
More pomegranate vinegar to rinse hens

1-3 teaspoons semolina, to thicken sauce

Method
Clean and dry fowl and salt liberally, inside and out. Set aside. Prepare water, stock and vinegar in a large saucepan or kettle large enough to hold the hens. Add butter, asafetida, mint and arugula, coriander and cumin seeds and cinnamon stick and heat over a high flame, stirring occasionally. When the water has come to a boil, add the hens and return to a boil. Reduce heat a bit and cook uncovered over medium-heat for five minutes. Then reduce heat till stock just bubbles. Cover and cook for 5 minutes or so.

In a food processor, pulse together the onion, leek, garlic and lightly drained yogurt until it is a small dice or minced. Be careful not to blend until pasty, some shape and texture of vegetable is desired. When this is done add to the water and chickens and continue to cook for another 5-10 minutes – do not overcook. Total cooking time for hens in the pot is 15-20 minutes. When done, remove birds from the pot and cool until able to handle.

Preheat broiler to highest heat, for grilling hens later. While cooling the hens, take the stock you used to cook the hens and pour it into a clean saucepan. If you are using a cup or two of stock to make couscous, barley or some ground to enjoy with the recipe, do so now and pour off about one-third to one-half of the stock that remains. Heat to a steady low boil, stirring constantly and cook uncovered to reduce, stirring occasionally.

Pulse the mint and sage (or other herbs you choose) a few times in the food processor until nicely minced and add a teaspoon or so of water to moisten them. Divide hens in two, down the spine, by slicing with a large, sharp knife or cleaver. Pour pomegranate vinegar over the hens, inside and out to wash away herbs from cooking and set aside.

Rub both sides of the hens with the mint and sage herb mixture until an even coating is achieved and set aside. Continue to cook stock until it starts to thicken. Add semolina to facilitate this process, stir until dissolved.

Place rib side down on a lightly sprayed baking sheet. Cook under the preheated broiler flame about 4-5 minutes per side. Watch constantly and be careful not to burn the hens. Turn baking sheet as necessary to ensure even cooking. When done, remove from heat and let rest 5-10 minutes while finishing the sauce.

If desired, strain the sauce, but I did not, preferring a more rustic presentation. I served the dish in a shallow bowl adding a layer of Herbed Barley and sauce beneath the hen and a bit of sauce on the fowl. I also served the sauce separately on the table for those that wanted a bit more.

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This dish – especially when served with Herbed Barley – was fantastic! Everyone was happy with it and thought that it tasted more like a creative concoction of a skilled modern chef than an ancient recipe. For those skeptical about boiled fowl, the 15 minutes or so these birds were in the pot did them no harm, and the roasting with herbs before serving, made it simply delicious. I can guarantee that it will be like nothing else your family or guests have ever eaten.

The sharp eyed will notice that I used an onion instead of shallots and tulip bulbs. Today’s onions, largely mass-produced in China are much more bitter than ancestral onions. The taste of onions in the ancient world was probably milder – more like a shallot, hence my substitution of one for the other. Since tulip bulbs are said to be bitter, and I haven’t experimented enough with the flavors to recommend a species of tulip, I thought that using a modern onion would be a reasonable substitute – for now. (Words and recipe by Laura Kelley; Photo of Roasted Chicken with Herbs by James Camp@Dreamstime)*

*(I am not a good food photographer, and purchased a photo from a stock house that was a reasonable stand-in for the dish I cooked. To see my photograph of the dish, click here and understand why I purchased the photo. I think that my photos may improve with my purchase of a macro lens, but I’m not guaranteeing that – only hoping.)

Autumn on the Silk Road Means . . . Pickles!

Mixed Pickles

Cucumbers, capers, ginger, garlic, peppers, beans, asparagus, onions: Any vegetable out there – and quite a few fruits as well make excellent pickles. All along the Silk Road, harvest time and the weeks and months that follow are a time when, in many traditional cultures, foods are salted or pickles or otherwise preserved to provide a bountiful table in the cold winter months that follow. Vinegars or souring agents of all types combine with spices and herbs to create new forms of familiar foods that are like but different from their fresh counterparts.

Some pickles take weeks or months to develop, others can be made ready in days or even hours to as a light accompaniment to meal of kabobs or other roast meats and vegetables. I have a few favorite recipes for pickles. One is for Pomegranate Pickled Garlic enjoyed in the Black Sea countries of Georgia and Armenia, another for Mint Onion Pickles from Iran and a third from Bhutan for cucumbers pickled in rice vinegar with coriander and cumin seeds a healthy dose of cracked Sichuan Pepper.

Of the three, the Pomegranate Pickled Garlic is probably my favorite, possibly because outside of Eastern European and Western Asian ethnic enclaves and such garlic-growing regions as the California’s Central Valley, we don’t enjoy pickled garlic as much as we could here in the US; but partly it is the use of the pomegranate juice as an alternative to vinegar as the pickling ground. A recipe follows:

2 large heads of garlic (about 60 cloves), peeled
3 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup of unsweetened pomegranate juice
¼ cup of white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, cracked or lightly crushed
3 hot, dried, red chili peppers
1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped

Place the peeled garlic in a sterile glass jar and add the salt and sugar. Cover and shake to mix. Let stand on the counter for 1–2 hours, shaking every now and then to get the garlic to start to break down and give off its liquid.

Heat the pomegranate juice and the vinegar in a small saucepan to bring to a boil. Add the peppercorns, the sliced or torn chili peppers, and the dill to the garlic and then top off with the pomegranate juice and vinegar mixture. Cover and shake well. Store refrigerated for at least 1 month before eating.

I give the jars and shake at least once a week while they are developing to ensure that the pickling process is happening evenly. And what a joy at the end to have such flavorful, sweet, sour and slightly spicy pickles to enjoy with a hearty piece of lavash or shoti bread to soak up the juices and a bowl of soup or small plate of hinkali dumplings, these pickles help make a wonderful meal.

So, you have a favorite pickle or pickle recipe?

(Word by Laura Kelley; photo of Mixed Pickles by Olgalis at Dreamstime.com)