It’s the dark red fruit that trends during the holidays, embraced for the way it adds a tart yet subtle sweetness to festive dishes and cocktails alike.
Cranberries, right? Please. That’s so yesterday. I’m talking pomegranates, and there’s nary a chef or bartender who hasn’t been captivated by what they can bring to a culinary and cocktail encounter.
“Pomegranates originate from the Middle East but were brought here by the Spanish missions,” said Jared McKinley, botanist and publisher of Territory Magazine.
“They have been around a long time, long enough to be very much a part of our food traditions.”
McKinley tells me that pomegranates flourish in Southern Arizona because they’re harvested from tough deciduous trees that can take a full beating from the sun and are able to survive long periods of drought.
“The reason we have so many heritage varieties being revived is that we find old trees surviving at old homesteads, where sometimes they have been living off of rainfall for half a century,” McKinley said.
To get a sense of the winter fruit’s role in the mixology craft, I sat down with Mat Snapp, beverage director at Fox Restaurant Concepts, who says its color is the most noticeable element it brings to a beverage.
“A splash of pomegranate juice can introduce a lovely rose hue to a cocktail, which can evolve into a deep garnet or magenta simply by adding a bit more,” said Snapp.
The pomegranate’s visual appeal is matched by its taste, which Snapp likens to “the warmer side of cranberry.”
“Think bright and tart, a profile that works well in every season year-round.”
Snapp offered the Fig and Ginger Mule as an example, one of nine signature cocktails at Wildflower, 7037 N. Oracle Road.
It brings together Tito’s Vodka and Figenza Fig Vodka – which Snapp calls “one of the sexiest products out there” – along with lime and pomegranate juices and a splash of Gosling’s Ginger Beer.
“The rustic, warm and earthy notes from the figs combine well with the brightness of the pomegranate and the subtle sharpness of the ginger,” he said, “and the fresh lime juice comes in to make it just a little louder.”
Another local pomegranate enthusiast is Janos Wilder, who loves how the fruit embodies different taste sensations.
“In pomegranates, we get sweet, tart and sour all at the same time, which represents three of the five senses,” said Wilder, owner of Downtown Kitchen and Cocktails, 135 S. Sixth Ave. “It really is a jewel.”
Wilder uses pomegranate juice as the anchor for his house-made grenadine, distinctly different from the mass-produced and overly sweet version that helped to brand the Roy Rogers and Shirley Temple.
While many associate grenadine with cherries, it comes from the French word “grenade” which means pomegranate, and Wilder’s version is a nod to that tradition.
His grenadine makes an appearance in the Oaxacan Dream, with Serrano-infused reposado tequila and the juices of fresh limes and oranges.
“In this cocktail, we have layers of sweet, tart, sour, spice; I mean c’mon, what’s not to love?”
Wilder has used pomegranates in cuisine throughout the year as well, but agrees that their seasonality makes them a hit for the holidays.
“I don’t know that I’d call pomegranates the new cranberries, but they are a natural complement to the deeper, richer and darker autumnal flavors that we enjoy this time of year.”
Several local bartenders have discovered the fruit’s appeal as well, joining Snapp and Wilder on the pom line.
And that’s my kind of holiday cheer.
Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at email@example.com. Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 4-5 p.m. Saturdays on KEVT Power Talk 1210-AM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030-AM. Disclosure: Fox Restaurant Concepts is a client of Russell Public Communications.