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The Pantry

Although it might not be the most visually arresting of them all, pomegranate molasses is a cornerstone ingredient in the Middle Eastern store cupboard. Its distinctive tart-sweet flavour adds a fragrant complexity to all manner of classic dishes, from Iranian fesenjan (chicken stew with ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses) to Lebanese-style fattoush and Turkish kisir, as well as muhammara, the punchy, vibrantly-coloured walnut and roasted pepper dip loved all over the Levant.

This ingredient begins life of course as a pomegranate, the pretty blush-red fruit that holds a pearly mass of translucent pink-hued seeds within. Pomegranate molasses, or dibs rumman to use its Arabic name, is made by boiling the juice extracted from these seeds – often with sugar and lemon juice – until reduced to a dark, syrup-like consistency.

Thanks to its intense flavour and lip-smacking, tongue tingling, slightly citrusy taste, pomegranate molasses has an abundance of culinary uses and is able to play both starring role and supporting act in sweet and savoury dishes alike. It’s fantastic brushed over meat or fish just before grilling, can be stirred into complex sauces at the very start of the cooking process or drizzled over salads, soups, yogurt and dips as a final dramatic flourish. It’s also fantastic in desserts: carefully fold into sweetened whipped cream destined for meringues, trickle over rose water-infused rice puddings or stir through slightly softened ice cream.

If you fancy mixing up – quite literally –the way you use pomegranate molasses, then a shrub is the way to go. Sometimes called drinking vinegars, these are acidic syrups that combine vinegar, fruit, sugar and herbs or spices to form the tangy base component of a mixed drink.

Shrubs are no new thing; they have been enjoyed in the United States for centuries, while the word itself could well be traced back to the Arabic sharaba (to drink). Right now though they are enjoying something of a moment and have become popular with artisan drinks makers and mixologists all over.

As the recipe that follows shows, shrubs are actually very easy to prepare at home. The only difficulty (if it can be called that), lies in getting the sweet-sour balance exactly right. Once you’ve made your pomegranate shrub base, top it up with sparkling water, soda water or ginger ale and you’ll be rewarded with a thirst-quenching, palate piquing drink that’s perfect for sipping slowly.

When you have a reputation as the world’s most expensive anything, it’s important, imperative rather, that you deliver something rather special in return. Lucky then that saffron – the costliest spice on the market – really does deserve the reverence its price tag commands.

The primary reason for this expense is the intensive production method. Saffron strands are actually the extremely delicate, thin stigmas of the crocus. Now this is a finicky flower if there ever was one; it tends to bloom for only one week a year, each flower yields just three stigmas and these must be plucked by hand before the midday sun causes them to wilt. To put this into perspective, it’s estimated that some 150 crocus flowers are needed to produce a mere gram of saffron.

Always buy saffron in strand rather than powdered form and remember that a bargain price is likely to leave you with a disappointing, adulterated version of the real thing. Seek out fine, uniform strands with tiny yellow tendrils or tips, dampen a thread or two slightly and rub onto a tissue. If the tissue becomes stained a deep sunshine yellow you can purchase confident in the knowledge that this is the real thing.

Saffron has a truly unique flavour profile that is easy to identify yet difficult to describe: subtle yet distinctive, vaguely metallic, slightly earthy yet possessing a sweet, honeyed undertone. Thankfully when it comes to cooking, just a few slim strands are needed in order to impart dishes with this unmistakable taste and regal, yellow glow. Do take the time to soak the threads in warm liquid – be that water, stock, sugar syrup or oil – for at least a few minutes (or several hours), to maximise the impact.

This is an ingredient that speaks of celebration. Should you now be looking for an excuse to add the spice to your culinary repertoire, then Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights which this year begins on October 19th, is the perfect opportunity. Elaborately decorated, extravagantly flavoured Indian sweetmeats known as mithai are commonly given as gifts during Diwali and barfi, a fragrant, fudge-like confectionary made from thickened condensed milk is particularly popular. Although it comes in a variety of different flavours ranging from cardamom to rose water, carrot to coconut, vibrant, golden saffron barfi might just be the prettiest of them all.

Key ingredient: Pomegranate

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Key Ingredient: Saffron

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