Alhambra Farmers Market
Once again the Alhambra Source is back at the Sunday morning farmer's market. We take a look at two fruits with ancient origin, popular because of their symbolism but also because of their amazing sweetness.
My sweet tooth has been itching all week thanks to Halloween, which really affected my buying decisions. Leafy greens and hardened squash took a back seat while I gravitated toward the sugary samples offered throughout the market. Two fruits in particular stood out, and I found myself leaving a few pounds heavier (grocery-bag wise).
Blood of the gods, fruit of modern civilization
Directly across from Briar Patch farms (from our previous look at apples & pears), I came across these bountiful yellow crates overflowing with gorgeously plump grapes. One of the oldest cultivated fruits, grapes have long been popular in many cultures due to their flavor, versatility and symbolism. Native to Western Asia and Central Europe, they were grown as early as 5000 BC (because yeast occurs naturally on the skins of grapes, we can assume the production of wine had an influence on this). Wine making specifically was used for religious purposes in ancient Egypt, but became much more social as the grape found its way through the Mediterranean. The Greeks and Romans were also the first to cultivate grapes for the production of making sweetened syrups as well as vinegers. Symbols of both grapes and wine seem to represent either great joy or grim ritual. Art and literature have long often used them as a symbol of revelry, ecstasy and decadence. Wine specifically has stood for blood, as an offering to the gods or representing their immortality. While the duality seems strange at first, I think I get pretty good understanding after eating a few bunches of globe grapes or after a few glasses of Riesling.
Grapes (and their skins in particular) are are rich sources of vitamins A, C, B6, as well as containing powerful antioxidants. They are available from several stands, but the season is soon coming to an end (maybe another month or few weeks). Walker Farm has a great selection, ranging from bright reds to dark purples (names include Red Flame, Autumn Royal and Black Fantasy). Grapes are perfect in their raw form right off the stem, but there's a life for them in other applications. For homemade grape juice I follow this recipe from Simply Recipes (depending on the sweetness of the grape you may have to add sugar). If you have a lot of juice leftover, you can also try out making jams and jelly. While I don't have experience with preserving, I definitely want to try this recipe from Epicurious, albeit on a smaller scale. I'm a big fan of mixing the sweet with the savory, so I love roasting chicken with grapes. You can either place the grapes in the chicken cavity itself or spread around the pan (I prefer the latter as the grapes get to roast/fry in the rendered chicken fat). I would suggest trying to make your own raisins, but this is definitely only for the adventurous/ those with vacation time. If you don't have a food dehydrator, you must dry them out slowly, either in the sun or in an oven set at 200°. Both these methods will take hours, and while I can't suggest it'll be worth your time, you can definitely claim the foodie street cred and bragging rights.
After gorging on grapes, I spotted these shapely pomegranates a few feet away. Pomegranates have also existed since ancient times (as far back as 3000 BC), with great significance and symbolism in art, religion and myth. Native to Persia, from Iran to the Himalayas in northern India, pomegranates have been cultivated throughout the Mediterranean region of Asia, Europe and Africa. Long valued for their medicinal properties, it wasn't until recently (about a decade ago) that the marketing machines really got behind promoting the fruit and its health promoting benefits. Pomegranates are considered a superfruit, containing rich sources of antioxidants, vitamins C & B5, potassium, and fiber (this only counts if you eat the seeds, though). Pomegranates have long represented fertility and prosperity, also representing life and death in Greek myths. Pomegranate patterns appear throughout many cultures; in Renaissance fabrics, painted on the walls of Egyptian tombs and decorating temples in throughout the Middle East. (For more info, Foodreference.com has a great timeline of Pomegranate history).
Fresh pomegranates are available from September until January. When picking, choose those that are bright and wrinkle free, and feel heavy for their size. They can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two months. Probably the biggest factor for pomegranate's late popularity bloom (at least here in the West), is probably due to it being rather labor-intensive and expensive. While other so-called superfruits like blueberries and cranberries can be eaten right off the stem, you must get past the pomegranate's leather skin and bitter/waxy pith. A few markets are starting to carry fresh pomegranate arils (the edible seed) in containers for convenient snacking, but it isn't that difficult to harvest them yourself. First and foremost, be aware that pomegranate juice is potent stuff and can stain your clothes. But this can be avoided by peeling them in a bowl of water. Slice off a then piece of both ends, then score the fruit vertically (not too deep!) and peel apart underwater. You can now gently nudge the arils off the waxy pith. Once the pith is separated (they will float while the edible part sinks) you can drain and towel dry the arils. You can enjoy these right away or garnish salads and soups. With enough arils you can make juice by pulsing them in a blender then straining out the seeds. One whole pomegranate will get you about 1/3 cup of juice. If you want to make grenadine (a classic cocktail fodder), you'll need four cups of juice to get 1 1/2 cups of syrup. For some Football finger foods, try this Hot Wing recipe from About.com, which uses both pomegranate and cranberry juice in the sauce. Wash those down with a tequila sunrise (or Shirley Temple for you non-alcoholics). If you reduce the grenadine even more, you'll get a super concentrated pomegranate syrup (add sugar to taste if necessary) that you can pour onto vanilla ice cream or creamy cheesecakes.
Got more tips for grapes or pomegranates? Let us know!