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Pomegranate Soup

Iranian Pomegranate Soup, in Farsi (Ash Anar), is a very hearty soup suitable for a cold winter's evening meal. It has a delightful mixture of tastes that remain very distinct when eaten. Different parts of your mouth might experience very different tastes; sweet, sour and savory. This makes for an unusual, but very pleasant experience. Traditionally lamb is used for the meatballs, but beef can be substituted. Vegetarians can substitute red beets for the meat.

In most of the world, pomegranates are eaten as fruits or juiced. Pomegranates originally came from what is now Armenia and Iran. They were an extremely popular trade item on the Silk Road and were brought to the Americas with the first Europeans. In the Middle-East, pomegranate juice and pomegranate molasses are used in soups and rice dishes. One example of this use is Khoresht Fesenjan stew which is an essential part of most Iranian weddings. The stew consists mainly of ground walnuts, pomegranate molasses (or syrup), saffron, and cinnamon. Fesenjan has a rather ancient heritage. Ash Anar, the recipe for this month, is a bit more savory and contains spiced meatballs and soup greens. Pomegranate molasses can be purchased at the Balboa International Market or any other Middle-Eastern grocery. One can also purchase dried mint there.

Soups (ash) are very popular in Iran, so much so that cooks are known as ashpaz (lit. "maker of soups"). The recipe also calls for pomegranate seeds for a garnish. The trick to removing the seeds from the pomegranate fruit is to score the outer skin several times and then break open the pomegranate in a large bowl of water and nudge the seeds out with your fingers. The seeds will sink to the bottom of the bowl and the inedible white fiber will float to the top. Another method is to cut the pomegranate in half (perpendicular to the stem), place the half cut side down on the palm of your hand, whack the top with a heavy spoon, and nearly all the seeds will be dislodged into your hand. Please note that this recipe calls for browned onions (really caramelized), part of which go into the soup and part which goes into the meatballs. We use brown lentils (because we had them), but other kinds of lentils can be used if you adjust the cooking times so that the total simmering matches what is required for the lentil being used (as this varies considerably). Basmati rice is used, but other kinds can be substituted.

Ingredients:

Soup Ingredients:

Meatball Ingredients:

Mint Sauce Ingredients:

Preparation:

  1. In a large pot (see picture) on medium heat, brown onions in the olive oil stirring constantly. Please note that this might take at least 10 minutes; the goal is not to burn the onions and to let them caramelize a bit.
  2. When the onions are close to brown, remove 3 tablespoons of the onions and put them in the bowl you will use to make the meatballs.
  3. Add garlic to pot and cook an additional minute or until garlic is very slightly brown, stirring constantly (garlic burns quickly).
  4. Clean and rinse lentils.
  5. Add lentils and cinnamon, turmeric, salt and pepper.
  6. Turn up heat and bring to a boil.
  7. Turn down heat and simmer soup for 30 minutes.
  8. Mix all the meatball ingredients and shape into walnut sized balls.
  9. After the soup has simmered for 30 minutes, gently stir in the pomegranate molasses, rice, meatballs, cilantro, parsley and spinach.
  10. Turn up heat until the soup boils and then lower heat to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes more.
  11. Prepare mint sauce by mixing the dried mint and oil and heating in a small pot.
  12. When soup is done, serve in individual bowls, drizzle a tablespoon of the mint sauce on top, and festoon with 1 tablespoon of pomegranate seeds.
  13. Serve with pita or other middle-eastern flat bread.

بفرماييد (befarma'id)!

Recipe by Thomas Johnston-O'Neill
Photo by Shari Johnston-O'Neill

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