In this column, Ann gets right to the flavor of the topic, so . . . . . take notes!
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Seasoning as Comfort Food
I am often asked which spice is my favorite. This question is rather like
asking which is your favorite child. However, this time of year the
question is easy to answer. It's nutmeg, of course. Nutmeg reminds me of
my favorite childhood foods; cookies, baked custard, eggnog, and pumpkin
pie. Many winter dishes and holiday treats are enhanced with nutmeg. It
is highly aromatic and, for me, bespeaks Christmas.
The flavor of nutmeg (from the old French nois muscade or "musky nut') is
bitter, warm, spicy sweet, pungent, and slightly camphpraceous. It is
highly aromatic. It's fragrant musky aroma hints at cinnamon and vanilla.
Nutmeg in the US is usually associated with Sweet desserts, but many years
ago I was introduced to the magic of a pinch of nutmeg in spinach. Not
long afterward, nutmeg with sweet potatoes, squash and pumpkin seemed
natural. When nutmeg is used with onion it enhances the sweetness of the
onion and sweetens the aroma. In fact, many vegetables benefit from a
pinch of nutmeg, especially when the dish includes a cream sauce or an eggy
mixture like a quiche. This is not entirely a coincidence since it is also
an aid to digestion.
Nutmeg is equally important in meat and savory dishes. One finds nutmeg in
many sausages, and pat6s. It is the essential ingredient of Swedish
meatballs. Italians use nutmeg with veal and in both fillings and sauces
for pasta. Arabs have long added nutmeg to lamb. Nutmeg is the standard
seasoning in many Dutch dishes. In old cookbooks it is used more often
than any other spice.
Nutmeg is my secret ingredient in oyster pie and oyster stew. I use it as
a background flavor not really to be tasted. Nutmeg cuts the medicinal
flavor of oysters and enhances their salty sweetness. Jim Fobel writes
that in most cases he likes to use nutmeg sparingly to enhance a dish, but
even so more than just a little grating is needed to lend a bold rather
than a bland flavor and to catch up with other flavors.
Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) is unique among spice plants as it produces two
distinct spices: nutmeg and mace, with two distinct flavors. The nutmeg is
the small brown seed at the heart of the fruit. Mace is the lacy growth,
known as the aril which surrounds the seed. Nutmegs grow on a spreading
evergreen tree which can grow 60 feet tall. It has oval green leaves and
small yellow flowers. This tree is native to Molucca Islands, part of
Indonesia. These trees thrive in rich volcanic soil on sheltered
plantations near the sea. The trees bloom year round and produce an
apricot like fruit which is eaten by the natives. The fruit splits open to
reveal the red mace blades which are removed and dried. The nut is then
dried in the sun for four to six weeks. They are cracked open and the
nutmegs removed, then graded according to size.
Like most spices, nutmeg is best kept whole and ground as needed. There
are several types of nutmeg graters. A small metal grater with a space to
store the nutmeg is cheap and easily found in gourmet stores and catalogs.
One whole nutmeg yields two to three teaspoons ground. If you have never
experienced the flavor of freshly grated nutmeg you will be amazed at the
When buying nutmeg look for whole hard nuts, free from worm holes. If your
requirements preclude hand grinding, be sure you buy from a spice house
which grinds often and buy only as much as you need. Ask your supplier for
the origin of the product. Nutmegs from Indonesia have a higher oil
content so are superior to those from the West Indies. Remember, fat
Copyright (c) 2000, by:
Ann D. Wilder, President
VANN Spices, Ltd.
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