Paying Homage to a Fruit Rich in History — and Seeds

At the Rosh Hashanah table, as at all Jewish holiday meals, symbolic foods take pride of place. For the New Year, they will include two round challahs — symbolizing the cycle of life — apples and honey for a sweet year, and sometimes even beets, leeks and a fish head.

But to Israeli-American food writer Ann Kleinberg, no symbolic food has the resonance of the pomegranate, the subject of her recent book, “Pomegranates.”

According to tradition, the pomegranate is eaten on Rosh Hashanah because of its many seeds, a symbol of plenty. The blessing said upon eating it is: “May it be Your will that our merits be as numerous as (the seeds of) the pomegranate.”

So esteemed is the pomegranate in Jewish lore that the number of seeds the fruit contains is said to be exactly the same as the number of mitzvot in the Torah: 613.

Well, not exactly, according to Kleinberg.

In the course of researching her book, she found herself at the kitchen table one morning at 6 a.m., determined to prove or disprove the myth that the pomegranate contains 613 seeds.

“It took me hours,” she told the Forward. “My husband came down and saw me sitting in my bathrobe with a pair of chopsticks, sorting out pomegranate seeds into groups of 10, and he thought I was crazy.”

“For the record, I can now say definitively that there is no particular number of seeds in the pomegranate. In the fruit I dissected, they ranged from 353 to 840,” Kleinberg said.

In Israel, Kleinberg’s pomegranate book, the Hebrew edition of which was released by Yediot Aharonot just before last Rosh Hashanah, has been a hit. Ten Speed Press released an English version last November.

“The pomegranate has given me something that a Jewish girl from Queens could never aspire to be in high school: pom queen,” said Kleinberg, 52, who has spiky hair and an engaging, wicked grin.

“I wouldn’t say the book changed my life, but it’s given my life a new direction.”

A cantor’s daughter, Kleinberg became an interior designer who had her own successful practice in New York. Then she dropped everything to move to Israel.

Why? “I’m an idiot,” she said, laughing. “I had everything — an apartment on the Upper West Side overlooking Central Park, a sports car, even a reserved parking space, which had to be the hardest thing I’ve ever given up. But I’d spent my junior year at Tel Aviv University and had a great time, and each time I came on a visit it was harder and harder to come back to New York.”

In 1991 she moved to Jerusalem and then to Tel Aviv, where she struggled to set up a design practice.

Then she began writing a regular design and lifestyle newspaper column for the City Lights section of The Jerusalem Post. Her brash, cheerful style proved popular with readers. One day, when she told her editor about an interesting restaurant she’d been to, she instantaneously responded: “Write about it!”

That was the start of Kleinberg’s career as a professional food writer.

“I was never a restaurant critic,” she said. “It was more a case of sharing my love of food and entertaining.”

She joined the International Association of Culinary Professionals, where she met international chefs, authors and teachers. Gradually she became known in the Israeli food community.

Kleinberg began to use food as a means of introducing foreigners to an Israel that is different from the country they read about in the headlines.

“I love entertaining, and I felt that I could present Israel as a place that’s fun and exciting — a fabulous country to live in. I started inviting wives of ambassadors along with locals to meals at my house. It was a way to introduce diplomats to another Israel through food and a good time — especially a good time.

“People will forgive you if you screw up with the food at a party, but a boring evening is death,” she said.

After translating a number of Hebrew cookbooks into English, Kleinberg was approached by a publisher who asked her if she’d be interested in writing a cookbook on pomegranates.

“I had never really liked or had much interest in pomegranates,” Kleinberg said. “Of course, I lied. I told him I adored them. Then, when I got home, I thought: ‘What have I done? What the hell do you do with pomegranates, except eat a few seeds on Rosh Hashanah?’”

For the next few months, as she produced her book, she ate, slept, drank and thought of little else but pomegranates. She scoured obscure recipe books, spoke to experts and devised her own recipes, ranging from the obscure — such as a Persian chicken, walnut and pomegranate stew (Khoresh-e Fesenjan), and meat, pine nut and pomegranate pastries — to variations on popular staples, such as salmon gravlax with pomegranate.

Kleinberg became so immersed in the project, she found herself collecting pomegranate-shaped ceramics and jewelry. She even began to dress in red.

She started an Internet site called in homage to the fruit that she feels represents what’s best in life: beauty, abundance and health. “I was a woman possessed,” she said.

What she found was that the pomegranate is not only delicious and versatile, but also healthy. In fact, the Jewish tradition linking the pomegranate with plenty may be on to something that modern science has discovered only recently.

“You can use the seeds, the juice or the boiled-down syrup in main courses, drinks and desserts. And they’re really good for you. They’re full of fiber and vitamins, and they have better anti-oxidant properties than either green tea or red wine. Israeli doctors from Rambam hospital and the Technion are now researching the effects of pomegranates on heart disease.”

She added: “My own blood pressure went down while I was working on the cookbook. I can promise you that if you start eating pomegranates at the start of the New Year, you’ll probably be a lot healthier by the end of it.”

Gefilte Fish in Pomegranate and Horseradish Sauce

4 portions gefilte fish

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 red onion, chopped

1 carrot, peeled and cubed

3 cloves garlic, sliced

Dash of kosher salt

Dash of freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup white wine

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup pomegranate syrup

1/2 cup pomegranate juice

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 cooked beet, cubed

1 heaping teaspoon prepared red horseradish, or 1 teaspoon grated fresh

1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

1. Warm the oil in a saucepan over high heat. Add the onions, carrots and garlic. Sauté over medium heat until the onions turn golden and the carrots start to soften.
2. Add the salt, pepper, wine, sugar, pomegranate syrup and pomegranate juice. Return to high heat until the mixture starts to boil, and then lower heat and cook at a simmer while the mixture reduces by one third. Add lemon juice, beets and horseradish, and cook for an additional five minutes. At the very end, add pomegranate seeds and remove from heat.
3. Arrange gefilte fish on individual serving plates. Pour sauce over each piece of fish, and serve.

Serves four.

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Paying Homage to a Fruit Rich in History — and Seeds

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