Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Pomegranates and the cocktail culture

Pomegranate sows seeds of content

I fell in love with pomegranates as a kid. My mom occasionally bought me one, and I’d spend who knows how long prying glistening tart-sweet seeds from the leathery, ruddy skin.

But that childhood fun proved bothersome as an adult. Who had time to wrestle a pomegranate when there were hors d’oeuvres to prep and drinks to shake up?

Then came POM Wonderful. I know, it was certainly possible to juice a pomegranate before the California-based company launched its line of bottled juices about six years ago, and now there are other brands. But POM’s visibility, coupled with a spate of research into the fruit’s health benefits, made pomegranate an “it” flavor.

Is pomegranate still hot?

Probably not. Açai holds that honor. While the pomegranate has earned a permanent spot on the cocktail menu, Omega 5 oil skin care made of pomegranate seed oil is hotter than fire.

Of course, pomegranates aren’t really new. The tree, an Iranian native, was domesticated around 3000 B.C., according to POM Wonderful’s Web site.

The fruit spread throughout India, Northern Africa, China, Europe and the Americas, along the way symbolizing health, fertility and rebirth in the art, literature and religion of countless cultures.

Pomegranates even have something of a history in cocktail culture. Their juice was once a main ingredient in grenadine, although that’s no longer the case. Most commercial brands now rely on other fruit and artificial flavors and colors.

But if you want the real thing, make your own using instructions from Gary and Mardee Regan of Ardent Spirits, as published in The Craft of the Cocktail (Clarkson N. Potter, 2002): Juice a pomegranate using a levered fruit juicer, then add 1 ounce of simple syrup for every 3 ounces of pomegranate juice.

Pomegranate juice itself brightens fruity cocktails, or the seeds can be muddled à la caipirinha, but other drink ingredients easily overwhelm their flavor. Happily there are several pomegranate-flavored liqueurs and spirits that stand up to their cocktail companions.

PAMA pomegranate liqueur (about $22 for a 750-milliliter bottle) smells like real fruit, with a full, balanced flavor that shines when mixed with pear-flavored vodka and grapefruit juice in a cocktail Restaurant Michael Smith calls the Pear Tart.

Chateau Pomari ($18) is another option. It’s deeper red, with a syrupy, almost cloying, sweetness. Both are 34 proof. Add a splash of either to a glass of Champagne or sparkling wine for a New World take on the venerable Kir Royale, or substitute pomegranate liqueur for the Campari in a Negroni.

Or try a pomegranate vodka. Charbay’s ($30) is my top pick, with its dark peach color, vibrant and authentic character and long finish.

JP Wine Bar in the Crossroads Arts District combines it with Amontillado dry sherry, lemon juice and Peychaud Bitters for what it calls the Charbay Carnival.

Pearl Persephone ($20) is clear, with a weightier, rounder mouth feel and subtler pomegranate flavor. Both brands are 70 proof and can be substituted for the vodka in your favorite martini, Cosmopolitan or other cocktail recipe.

I guess pomegranates are fun for grown-ups to play with, too.

Pear Tart is a favorite cocktail of Nancy Smith, general manager at Restaurant Michael Smith in the Crossroads Arts District. It’s a seemingly incongruous combination of flavors — pear, pomegranate and grapefruit — that works only if you use freshly squeezed, ruby red grapefruit juice.

Pear tart Makes 1 cocktail
1 1/2 ounces Absolut Pear vodka
3/4 ounce PAMA pomegranate liqueur
2 ounces fresh squeezed ruby red grapefruit juice
Grapefruit slice for garnish (optional)
Combine ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with grapefruit slice and serve.

Anne Brockhoff

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