Pomegranate: a super food

Ari LeVaux


Photo of pomegranates in India via Flickr by McKay Savage
Photo of pomegranates in India via Flickr by McKay Savage

The idea that certain foods can make you smarter, faster, stronger or even younger has lead to the recent proliferation of “superfoods,” purported to do such things. This angle on health and well-being has opened big doors for marketers of food, writers of listicles, and those with the resources to pursue the superfoods lifestyle. But it’s buyer beware for consumers who wade into this $140 billion-a-year industry, because one thing many superfoods can surely do is cleanse your bank account.

The pomegranate, while often named in the company of superfoods, deserves a spot above this fray. Yes, it is a super food, not just for the eater but for the earth, and even for humanity. And for what it’s worth, we’ve been eating them for a long time. Many Biblical scholars believe the pomegranate was the real-life inspiration for the Forbidden Fruit. Whether or not we owe the original sin to this original superfood, civilizations and cuisines have been built on those ruby red, fleshy arils, which is what the angular sacks that contain a seed and fruit are called.

The trees are tolerant to high heat and low precipitation, are generally easy to go grow and can produce huge crops. The fruits can be stored for months and shipped slowly, helping to make pomegranates as climate-friendly as they are adapted to a planet that is already heating up.
This adaptability, along with growing demand for the fruit, have caused a surge in pomegranate trees being planted. Pomegranate orchards are replacing apple orchards in parts of India that are now too hot for apple growing. Meanwhile, pomegranate trees thrive in many of the same areas that support opium poppies, like Afghanistan and Mexico, which means eating them could help steer rural economies away from the narcotics business.

Though it can be messy, it’s hardly a chore to interact with a pomegranate. The leathery pentagonal orb glitters from the inside like a crystal-filled geode when you open it. The juicy seeds, dense with flavor, sugar and acid, are refreshing and joyful to munch on. Some people eat the arils with spoons by the bowlful. A sprinkled handful on a meal can transform it, as we will see in a moment in the recipe for Linguini con Funghi e Formaggio, or linguini with mushrooms and cheese.

But first, lest we forget, there are some truly compelling superfood-y reasons to like pomegranate. Antioxidants, vitamins, blah blah, sure.
Meanwhile, research published in 2013 suggests that pomegranate can cause dramatic improvement in rodents with Alzheimer’s. The team then set out to determine what compound or compounds in pomegranate were behind this activity. A follow-up study published in December of 2015 looked at the ability of several suspected pomegranate compounds to pass from the blood to the brain, which would be a crucial quality for an Alzheimer’s treatment.

None of the entries on their list of suspects, it turned out, were able to cross from the blood into the brain. But the team discovered that one of the suspect molecules is broken down by gut bacteria into smaller molecules called urolithins, which do pass the blood/brain barrier. Urolithins have also been shown to be anti-inflammatory, and to remove Alzheimer’s-related plaque from cultured brain cells.

But remember, if one aspires to therapeutic outcomes similar to what may be happening in rats, you would have to eat a lot of pomegranate, and might want to consider juice. You could easily make your own juice by purchasing a pile of fruit and watching a video or two about how to seed them without making a colossal mess. They can find on YouTube.

When buying pomegranates, look for firm fruits with rounded, rather than sunken, skins. But ultimately the best way to determine the quality or ripeness of a particular batch of fruit is to open one.
If you find a keeper, go buy some more from the same batch and store them in the fridge, advises my pomegranate advisor chef Ray Risho. The season is winding down, and your chances to stockpile some may soon dwindle.
The fruit’s fridge-life can be extended for months by wrapping them in paper towels and storing in a paper bag at the bottom of the fridge where there isn’t much activity, Risho explained. You want to leave the wrapped pomegranates unbothered, with as few vibrations as possible. Like bottles of wine, the less they’re disturbed, the better they’re preserved. 

What you should never do is buy packaged pomegranate seeds, which have a relatively short shelf life, and have been the source of multiple decidedly non-super outbreaks of food-borne illness.
Linguini con Funghi e Formaggio owes its magic, in part, to its garnish of pomegranate seeds. It may appear to be almost an afterthought, but it really completes the dish, which was among the most popular dishes at Risho’s legendary Perugia restaurant in Missoula, MT. He was kind enough to show me how to make it.

For two big portions
Half-pound linguini-a thick-but-not-enormous handful.
¾ cup mix of fresh basil, oregano, and parsley
1/3 cup mix of freshly grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses
5 cloves garlic, mashed
2 cups mushrooms: Risho likes a mix of white button, crimini, Portobello, morel, oyster, and shitake
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup pine nuts
1 lemon
½ cup pomegranate seeds
Heat two quarts of water with 1/8 cup of salt. Add the pasta when boils.
While cooking the pasta, chop the herbs, grate the cheese, mash the garlic, and slice the mushrooms.
When the linguini is al dente (just a receding sliver of a dry, white center), remove noodles and toss them generously in olive oil. Set aside. 
In a large skillet or wok, combine butter and 2 Tablespoons olive oil on medium heat. Add pine nuts and the mashed garlic.Toss the nuts just until they start to brown. Don’t overbrown.
Add the mushrooms and stir/toss them in. Season with 1/4 teaspoon of fresh ground pepper and a “kiss of salt.”
When the fungus starts to brown, toss in the herbs, then the pasta, then add the lemon juice.
Transfer the fragrant mixture onto a large plate, and garnish with handfuls of pomegranate seeds, and the rest of the grated cheese.  Squeeze a quarter lemon over the loaded plate, and place the remaining quarter lemon on top.