Pomegranates, when they are properly ripe, are a revelation of sweet aroma and tart flavor.
The tiny shimmering garnet fruits burst in the mouth, shooting sweet juices tinged with a sour aftertaste, with the barest hint of bitterness from the seed within.
I grew up eating one or two pomegranates a year, as treats. My father introduced me to them–he had eaten them very rarely as a child, and he remembered them as the most amazing fruit imaginable. I grew up eating them raw, and out of hand, carefully tearing away the leathery burgundy rind, and picking the seeds away from the flavorless pith, popping them into my mouth one by one, the juice staining my fingers first pink, then violet, and finally, black, as the juice oxidized in the beds of my fingernails, and cuticles.
It never occurred to me to cook with them until I began reading about the foods of Persia, now called Iran.
The Persians use a great deal of pomegranate fruit in their foods, either as the fresh fruit itself, or in the form of dried pomegranate seeds, or in the form of their juice, boiled down into a viscous dark liquid that is both as strongly sweet and fragrant as honey, and as sour as lemons–known as pomegranate molasses.
Pomegranates are used in both sweet and savory dishes throughout the Arab world, but I have found some of the most decadently delicious dishes in the cuisine of Persia–including this recipe for pomegranate soup, which, after I adapted it and played with it, may become a staple soup in my repertoire.
It begins with a strong flavor base from well-browned onions and garlic cooked in olive oil. Yellow split peas are added and cooked to a pale brown, before a large amount of chicken broth or stock (or, if you wanted to make this vegetarian, vegetable broth) is poured into the pot.
Then, come the spices, including black pepper, turmeric, a stick of cinnamon, and about a teaspoon of Aleppo pepper.
Meatballs made of lamb, minced garlic, minced onion and fresh herbs, are added, along with some basmati rice, and pomegranate molasses, before the soup is allowed to simmer. The pomegranate molasses gives the soup a deep brownish red coloring, and the spices give it an incredible fragrance.
Right before serving, fresh mint, cilantro, parsley and chives are stirred in, along with a small amount of heavy cream–a completely inauthentic addition which helps round out the flavors and soften the tartness of the pomegranate. About a cup or so of fresh pomegranate seeds go in as well to give bursts of color and flavor to the finished dish.
The resulting soup is both hearty and delicate: it is quite filling with the split peas, rice and meatballs, but the flavors are painterly, with subtle strokes of spice, kisses of sweetness from the fruit and a deep richness from the meatballs.
(The meatballs could be replaced with mushrooms for a vegetarian version–for a vegan version, leave out the cream altogether or replace it with a small amount of almond milk or coconut cream.)
This would make a good light supper with a hearty salad of mixed greens, fresh spinach, goat cheese, nuts and fruits.
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced
6 large cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup yellow split peas
2 quarts chicken or vegetable stock
2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 teaspoon ground fennel seed
1 pound lean ground lamb
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
1/4 cup finely minced onion
1/4 cup freshly minced fresh herbs–a mixture of cilantro, mint, and parsley
1 cup basmati rice
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon sugar or honey
1/4-1/2 cup heavy cream–optional
3 cups fresh pomegranate seeds
1 cup mixed fresh herbs, minced–use at least two of the following: chives, cilantro, mint and parsley
salt, to taste
Heat olive oil in the bottom of a heavy stockpot, and saute onions until they turn golden brown. Add garlic, and continue stirring and cooking until the onions are well browned, the garlic is golden, and everything is fragrant. Add the split peas, and continue cooking until the peas take on a bit of color, about a minute or so longer.
Add the stock and the spices, and bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer until the peas are tender.
Mix together the lamb, minced garlic, onion and herbs until well blended, and form into walnut sized balls.
Drop the meatballs and rice into the soup, and add the pomegranate molasses, and sugar or honey. Cook until the rice, split peas and meatballs are cooked. Stir in the optional cream if you are using it, along with the fresh pomegranate seeds and fresh herbs.
Add salt to taste, and if needed, correct seasoning. Fish out cinnamon stick before serving.
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