The autumn months are a magical time for foodies. After all, autumn is when the year's newest wine, the excitingly callow Beaujolais nouveau,is rushed into stores. It's also when many temperamental seasonal fruits and vegetables return to restaurants and produce aisles. One can almost imagine them as long-absent children, buzzing with stories from summer camp.
Of these staples, few are harder to find during the summer than the so-called "other red fruit," the pomegranate. Long hailed for their robust anti-oxidant and nutritional properties, the pomegranate's inky, juicy seeds have also become a go-to accent in seasonal beverages and cuisine - just another reason to celebrate the fall windfall.
According to Whole Foods manager Jeff Roff, the reason behind the pomegranate's relative summer scarcity is one of basic economics: Domestic markets simply don't deal in enough volume to warrant shipping the fruit from alternate, faraway farms.
"It's a cost factor in getting the fruit to the warehouse during the off growing season," Roff says. "In the Northern Hemisphere, the fruit is typically in season from September to January. In the Southern Hemisphere, it's in season from March to May."
Consequently, restaurant menus tend to display a little more pomegranate love come September. At Barrio Café in Phoenix (2814 N. 16th Street) - one of a handful of central Phoenix restaurants that strongly warrants the cross-Valley drive - chef Silvana Salcido Esparza ingeniously sprinkles pomegranate seeds over the addictive house guacamole ($10.50). Closer to home, Los Sombreros in Scottsdale (2534 N. Scottsdale Road) occasionally offers Chile en Nogada, in which a stuffed poblano pepper is finished with a rich nut sauce and pomegranate seeds ($16.95).
Aside from the taste, Los Sombreros manager Steve Douds also admires the fruit for its striking scarlet color.
"The color is a big punch," he says. "With the green chili and white nut sauce, you get the tricolor of the Mexican flag."
Because of its Fertile Crescent origins and singular flavor profile - sweet and tart, with a feisty hint of tannic dryness - the pomegranate is often used in Middle Eastern and Mexican dishes. For years, local celebrity chef Eddie Matney has been titillating taste buds with a pomegranate chili barbecue chicken ($18) partly inspired by his Lebanese heritage. Currently, diners can find the dish, paired with mint couscous and a pistachio-cucumber relish, at his recently-opened Eddie's House in Scottsdale.
"I love working with the pomegranates," Matney enthuses. "They can go with hot, with sweet, with savory. They never offend."
Since bottled pomegranate juice is a year-round staple, the fruit has become near-ubiquitous as a cocktail additive. Roy's in Scottsdale (7001 N. Scottsdale Road) has a Pomegranate Patron Mojito ($10), and Los Sombreros does a pomegranate margarita ($8.95) year-round.
Pomegranates boast another, less heralded culinary charm: With its slightly tannic profile, pomegranate juice makes a great, nonalcoholic substitute for red wine. All of the tart, none of the buzz.