I’ve been enthusiastically cooking for most of my adult life, and I thought that I had a pretty good handle on the pantry essentials I needed to feed myself well and happily. I always make sure I’m well stocked on asian basics like good soy sauce and dark sesame oil, I keep madagascar vanilla and a huge slab of baking chocolate on hand at all times, and I plow through balsamic vinegar and gallons of olive oil like it’s going out of style.
But every so often, I discover an ingredient that transforms the way I cook, and opens me up to a whole new realm of gustatory possibilities. It happened when I stumbled upon pickled thai curries for the first time, and when I finally caved and bought fish sauce. It happened again this past year when I had a bountiful windowsill herb garden on hand to make even the most basic dishes sing with fresh green flavor. And it happened a month ago when, in a small Middle Eastern market in Queens, I let the congenial salesman talk me into buying a bottle of pomegranate molasses.
I have to admit, I was skeptical of the stuff at first. It wasn’t cheap, about five dollars for a small bottle, and I couldn’t imagine finding a wide range of uses for the liquid beyond the excellent baba ganouch recipe suggested by my new friend. Still, I stuck it on top of my refrigerator, where it looked at me balefully for a few weeks.
Then one day, my friend Nick came over to watch movies. We started out with a game we made up, a contest where each one would assemble a drink for the other from improbable ingredients we scrounged up around the kitchen. He made me a riff on a mint julip, which was quite nice on a summer evening. I muddled bourbon with fresh thyme from the garden, and added a splash of soda water. But the taste was flat. It needed something sweet to perk it up. In a flash of inspiration, I snagged the neglected bottle of molasses, and poured in a teaspoon or so, mixing it in until the drink turned dark red. Nick took a sip. His eyes lit up. “Emily,” he said, “I think that you win!”
After that, it was only a matter of time before I started tossing pomegranate molasses in everything! I became a little bit obsessive, splashing it in vinaigrettes for conventional green salad, and a delicious concoction I made with Israli couscous and fresh spring vegetables, using it as a sweet- sour marinade for lamb chops and grilled chicken kabobs, and, of course, expanding my cocktail repertoire considerably . I even made chocolate and pomegranate molasses ice cream!
So the next time a friendly stranger in a tiny market gives you cooking advice, take it! You never know when you’ll find your pomegranate molasses.
Oh, and just in case you’re curious, here’s the recipe that started it all:
Muddle together in the bottom of a small glass a few pinches of fresh thyme, and as much bourbon as you’re interested in drinking. Add pomegranate molasses to taste, then top off with a splash of sparkling water, and go outside somewhere to watch the sunset.