Califonia Bountiful

Pomegranate perfection

November/December 2018 California Bountiful magazine

Making the holidays cheery and bright

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Inspired by California-grown pomegranates, floral designer Talene Kasparian-Cleveland crafts arrangements for the holiday season that "bring the outside in." Photo: © 2018 Tomas Ovalle

An age-old symbol of prosperity and abundance in civilizations spanning the globe, the ruby-red pomegranate is becoming an increasingly popular feature on holiday tables throughout the U.S. Harvest in California—which is the nation's top producer of the crop—begins in September and continues through January, making pomegranates a natural fit for fall and winter celebrations.

Known for their jewel-like seeds, or arils, and sweet-tart juice, pomegranates lend a pop of color and flavor to dishes both savory and sweet. As uniquely beautiful as they are flavorful, they can also turn heads as holiday décor.

Kasparian-Cleveland, who owns a floral shop in Fresno County, puts the finishing touches on an arrangement made with locally grown pomegranates. Photo: © 2018 Tomas Ovalle

The beauty of the season

Beginning each fall, floral designer Talene Kasparian-Cleveland, owner of Fowler Floral & Gifts in Fowler, in Fresno County's agricultural heartland, uses locally grown pomegranates to embellish homes and businesses for celebrations such as Rosh Hashanah, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's.

"Once the fruits of the season start showing up, that's when people start thinking, yes, let's incorporate pomegranates or persimmons or fall foliage and other fruits," Kasparian-Cleveland said.

The floral designer arranges pomegranates with fresh flowers, including roses, calla lilies, hydrangeas and orchids, or incorporates them into wreath and garland designs. She chooses holiday colors and adds touches of gold, which she said complement the deep red of the pomegranate. Although she suggests people work with a florist to create more elaborate designs, there are plenty of easy, DIY options.

"Decorating with pomegranates can be as simple as washing them, adding shine and placing them into a clear glass bowl or along a runner down the middle of a table," she said.

For a more rustic look, Kasparian-Cleveland suggests combining the fruit with greenery such as cedar or Douglas fir, and adding pine cones and berries. It's a design that will last all winter.

Pomegranates can even be preserved by drying. To dry, place whole pomegranates in a single layer on a rack and keep in a cool place a few weeks. Rotate the fruit periodically to prevent flattening on one side. Once dried, pomegranates can be used as décor for many years.

Adding pomegranates and other fruits and foliage of the season to holiday décor helps "bring a little bit of the outside in, in a very charming way," Kasparian-Cleveland said.

Fresno County farmer Jeff Simonian, right, checks on pomegranates prior to harvest. The fruit is known for its arils, or seeds, left, and sweet-tart juice. A Simonian family favorite is pomegranate jelly, top left, which is given to friends and customers during the holidays. Photos: © 2018 Tomas Ovalle

A holiday jewel

Of course, pomegranates are equally at home adorning dishes on the table as they are adorning the table itself.

"Pomegranates are unique and can set your presentation apart from your neighbors' and friends'," said Pomegranate Council Manager Tom Tjerandsen.

The fruit, which possesses anti-inflammatory properties and is high in antioxidants, makes a versatile ingredient. California farmers grow about 150 million tons of fresh pomegranates annually. Roughly half of the crop is sold fresh and the remainder is processed into juices, flavored teas and marinades, or used in dyes and cosmetics. The arils are also sold in popular ready-to-eat cups.

Pomegranate arils pair nicely with turkey and work well with lamb, Tjerandsen said, and the juice can be used to make a flavorful marinade. Another way to enjoy pomegranate arils is "sprinkled over green salads, which provide much color and flavor," he said.

For holiday beverages and spirits, Tjerandsen suggests dropping a few arils into a glass of champagne, which adds flavor and visual appeal.

"The bubbles attach to the arils and they float to the top of the glass. When the bubble pops, the arils sink down to the bottom, like a lava lamp," he explained.

Some bartenders also freeze pomegranate juice in an ice cube tray and place the red cubes into a clear drink.

"It is really fascinating to watch those tendrils of color as it starts to thaw," Tjerandsen said.

Pomegranate harvest in California typically begins in September and continues through January. Photo: © 2018 Tomas Ovalle

Family traditions

Pomegranate farmer Jeff Simonian, co-owner of the family business Simonian Fruit Co., a grower, packer and shipper of fresh fruit in Fowler, is also an enthusiastic consumer of the fruit.

"A pomegranate is sweet, yet tart, with a burst of flavor," he said. "Each aril contains a fibrous seed and some people spit that out, but I eat the whole thing—just down the hatch. That's where a lot of the nutrients are."

Holiday demand for pomegranates revs up almost immediately after harvest begins in September, said Simonian, who grows about 200 acres of fresh pomegranates and packs fruit for other growers. For example, customers purchase pomegranates to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which falls between early September and early October. Eating the pomegranate symbolizes a New Year's wish to be filled with merits as abundant as the seeds of the fruit.

Simonian Fruit Co. employees hand-harvest fresh, whole pomegranates, then place them into bins to be transported to the packing facility. From there, they are cooled, washed and packed.

"The peak of harvest is in October and November when the main variety, the Wonderful, is harvested," said Simonian, who also grows grapes, persimmons and stone fruit, including apricots, nectarines, peaches and plums. "There will be a lot of pomegranates around, in grocery stores, restaurants, everywhere."

Employee Rosa Maria Gonzalez packs pomegranates in the Simonian Fruit Co. packing facility. Photo: © 2018 Tomas Ovalle

Grown as a shrub or trained as a small tree, pomegranates are grown commercially in California as a tree. About 200 farmers produce the predominant Wonderful variety, in the top-growing counties of Fresno, Tulare and Riverside. The fruit needs a long, hot growing season to mature, making the San Joaquin Valley the ideal place to grow them.

Simonian's family has grown pomegranates there for 40 years. This time of year, their own holiday tables are brimming with the fruit. A favorite tradition is making pomegranate jelly to give to friends and customers during Christmastime, something the family has done for about 15 years.

"People would say, 'This jelly is great—you can't buy this in the store,'" Simonian said.

Now, you can. The company began producing the jelly, which is sold locally at fruit stands and small stores. Another family favorite is Aunt Doralie's pomegranate cranberry sauce.

Whether for family recipes, the legendary promise of abundance, a sophisticated holiday spread or seasonally inspired decorations, pomegranates offer many ways to celebrate the season.

Christine Souza 


Aunt Doralie's pomegranate cranberry sauce

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