The strongest of all the sweet spices, nutmeg warms our winter tables with sweet-spicy cakes, cookies and always-popular eggnog. The fragrant nuggets carry with them not only a warm, woody aroma, but also an interesting history. Hailing from the Spice Islands, this exquisitely pungent tropical evergreen tree seed was carried first to Asia and eventually to Europe via ambassadors of the world’s second-oldest profession: spice trading. By the 19th century, people had figured out how to grow nutmeg in the Caribbean and other spicy spots around the globe, and it became a staple seasoning almost everywhere. Nutmeg has been celebrated the world over for its culinary uses, and its principal flavor compound, myristicin, also has been touted as an aphrodisiac, a natural medicine and even a hallucinogen.
The nutmeg seed comes wrapped in a shiny, lacy casing called mace that is itself a wonderful spice, similar to but milder than nutmeg. (Mace can be found in seafood dishes, stocks and sauces, hot dogs, bologna and sausages, and is usually sold separately from nutmeg.)
The penetrating flavor of nutmeg combines beautifully with many foods, from sweet doughnuts to savory sausage. Its affinity for cream and cheese makes it an interesting addition to mac and cheese and a necessary ingredient in eggnog and classic béchamel sauce. It’s also the best friend of many a cooked green, and you might enjoy a bit of grated nutmeg in your morning cup of joe.
In the United States, we often turn to nutmeg during the winter months, when its warmth is most welcome. ’Tis also the season for sweet treats, and nutmeg shines in traditional holiday recipes such as spice cake. Another good reason to use nutmeg during the cold months is that it adds richness to many of winter’s best foods, such as spinach, kale, carrots, potatoes and squash.
If you want to try nutmeg in different recipes but you’re just winging it, remember to use it sparingly. And here’s a good trick: If you think you’ve had too heavy a hand with nutmeg (or any other pungent spice), you can usually counterbalance it by adding ground coriander seed. Unless you’re baking, add nutmeg at the end of cooking as a finishing flavor. To try this fantastically aromatic spice on the fly, follow these general guidelines: For every 8 ounces of red or white meat, use one-half to 1 teaspoon of nutmeg, and about half that for veggies and starches.
Real Food Find: Whole Nutmeg
Nutmeg is quite high in oil, so it’s one of the few spices that retains its flavor well in dried, ground form. However, freshly grated nutmeg tastes and smells even more heavenly. Its oils will often clog a spice grinder, so the best (and most fun) way to prepare it is with a nutmeg mill or grater. If you can’t find whole nutmeg locally, you can order it from these suppliers. Penzeys carries special Grenadian nutmeg, which is much more potent than other nutmegs.