by Donna Marie Zotter
Nutmeg, like most of our Test Kitchen indulgences, has an historic and sensual appeal. It is known as both an aphrodisiac and a symbol of wealth and position; in the high courts of 18th and 19th century Europe, kings, queens, and nobility would carry their private supply along with artisanally-crafted spice graters — a tradition that lives on in most modern kitchens. Interestingly enough, civil war and bloodshed over the control of nutmeg production and its price is part of our global history. Nutmeg does tends to stir people in unusual ways.
Still, it is a relatively common spice. Nutmeg and its sister spice, Mace, are the byproducts of light yellow fruits with red and green markings, which are harvested from the evergreen tree Myristica fragrans (native to the spice islands of the East Indies). Mature fruit yields a seed covered with a red membrane (called an aril, the mace portion of the nutmeg). The nut is dried until the interior nutmeat (the edible nutmeg) can be harvested, or pressed to extract its oil for use in perfumes.
Though commonly available, Nutmeg’s aroma and taste is uncommonly transporting; pungent and strong, it is used sparingly in both sweet and savory dishes. With the flavors of the harvest as your muse — pumpkin pie, roasted squash, hearty game meats, and mulled ciders — the tastes that come to mind are grounded in cinnamon, clove, vanilla, allspice, ground ginger, and yes, nutmeg. And while each is important to the overall flavoring of a savory dish, nutmeg stands as the structural backbone to any combination. Without it, flavors get lost amongst each other and the primary ingredient; with it, you can use any of the other harvest spices — one or many, in any combination. The nutmeg harnesses the other flavors and keeps a necessary structure to the flavoring components.
Still, elaborate menus with ingredient-packed recipes needn’t be your modus operandi to extract the stirring warmth and transporting aroma that nutmeg offers. Harken back to spring when we introduced the technique of glazing spring carrots; that recipe works equally well in Harvest season, trading out the lighter spring seasonings, but retaining the ease and palate-pleasing results.
Recipe: Spice Glazed Carrots
There are endless uses of nutmeg in recipes — both sweet and savory — that elevate its aromatic and flavor properties. When combined with tropical or fleshy fruits that are caramelized in butter and brown sugar, then sprinkled with nutmeg, the result is bewitching. Fruits such as papaya, bananas, or even peaches are perfect fruits to be used in this way. Then again, the spice hails from the East Indies and the equatorial climates that abundantly supply these fruits — Nature does know what she’s doing.
For those of us who live in more seasonal climes, nutmeg can be used in a similar manner with squash and other root vegetables. Simply pan-, or oven-roast vegetables with butter, brown sugar, and a sprinkling of nutmeg. As the butter browns and the sugar aids in the caramelization of the vegetable, the smoky nut and sweet, cinnamon-like flavor of nutmeg works to complement the meat of the vegetable.
But that’s the beauty of this spice, and most of the indulgent spices, for that matter: They need little more than a platform to transport their aromas and flavors. Butter is the ultimate vehicle. Its neutral platform holds the flavor combination in place until it reaches the palate; then, as it travels across the tastebuds, each subtle, fragrant essence fills the mouth and nose with the flavor we have come to call Autumn.
Recipe: Harvest Spiced Butter
Photo: Kelly Cline
Donna Zotter is the founder and executive chef of There’s A Chef in My Kitchen, a portable culinary school in Harrisburg, PA.