Nutmeg is the dried seed of the fruit of an evergreen. Warm and sweet, nutmeg adds depth to desserts and savory dishes alike. Sprinkle it on your eggnog, but try it on your potatoes, too!
Botanical name: Myristica fragrans Houtt. , Myristica fragrans
Mace and nutmeg both come from the fruit of Myristica fragrans, an aromatic evergreen that grows to 66 feet, with dark green leaves, aromatic flowers, and large, brownish/yellow fruit. The female trees produce the fleshy fruit that splits in half once mature. The bright red, lacy covering (the aril) is harvested as mace, while the seeds are used for nutmeg. Nutmegs can be harvested when the trees are 7 to 9 years old, and the tree reaches full harvest maturity after about 20 years.
While M. fragrans is generally the preferred spice, two other species of nutmeg are grown--and sometimes used as adulterants. They are M. argentea or Papuan nutmeg, which is grown in New Guinea, and M. malabarica or Bombay nutmeg, which is grown in India. Imagine the streets spiced with nutmegs and other aromatics. In 1191, that's just what happened when the streets of Rome were prepared for the coronation of Henry VI. Nutmeg was prized in Elizabethan times for its reputed ability to fight the plague. In fact, legend has it that in England a few nutmegs could once be sold at a price that would render a person financially secure for life!
This value was well understood by the Portuguese, who controlled the nutmeg/mace trade for one hundred years, until the Dutch took it over-- for the next 200 years--in the early 17th century. In 1735 the Dutch East India Company burnt tons of surplus nutmeg to maintain a high price.
The term "wooden nutmeg" means a fraud, and "nutmegger" is the word for a con-artist. One explanation for the term is that dishonest Connecticut traders would supposedly whittle "nutmeg" out of wood. (Others say that the nutmeg sold was authentic and that people just didn't understand that it needed to be grated.) In either case, Connecticut is today known as "the nutmeg state."
Nutmeg's flavor is a bit sweeter, but more robust than the flavor of mace. It's traditionally used in Italian sausages, Middle Eastern lamb recipes, and various spice blends (some curry powder and garam masala blends, for example). Europeans use it in potato dishes, sauces, baked goods and processed meats.
You'll find nutmeg in recipes for pies, cookies, cakes, puddings, and custards, as well as sauces and soufflés. Try it in soups (especially split pea and tomato soups), and with seafood, fish, chicken, beans, and eggs. It works well with cheeses and a variety of vegetables, too, like cabbage, broccoli, onions, eggplant, spinach and Brussels sprouts. Don't forget to sprinkle it on eggnog, mulled wines and punches. Mashed potatoes are delicious with a light dusting of nutmeg, too.
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