Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Nutmeg has uses beyond eggnog

When recently visiting my mother I had good intentions of cooking one of her favorite pork dishes for her. While gathering the ingredients I discovered she was all out of nutmeg -- a key ingredient in the recipe.

"Just use apple pie spice,” she called to me from the next room. “That has nutmeg in it.”

While I saw she had a container of the apple pie spice, I scanned the ingredient list to find it also contained cinnamon and allspice. Not wanting to stray from the recipe I donned my coat and gloves instead, and drove to the nearest market.

I was glad I did. The subtle sweetness nutmeg lends to any dish is worth an unexpected trip to the grocery store.

Nutmeg is one of the spices derived from the fruit of the Myristica, a tropical evergreen tree. This tree is cultivated in India, Ceylon, Malaysia, Granada and to a limited extent, South Florida.

The fruit from this evergreen is the source of two spices; whole or ground nutmeg, from the inner seed; and mace, from the fibrous aril (seed covering) that separates the seed from its outer husk.

Nutmeg and mace are similar in taste; however nutmeg has a slightly sweeter flavor. Nutmeg tastes best when grated fresh and lends itself well to cheese sauces, sweet and savory dishes, mulled wine, cider, and eggnog.

In other cultures nutmeg has specific uses. In Indian cuisine, nutmeg is usually used in sweet dishes but may also be used in small amounts in garam masala. Garam masala is a blend of different ground spices common in Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani cuisine. In the Middle East, nutmeg powder is used often in savory dishes. Greece and Cyprus use nutmeg in both cooking and savory dishes. In European cuisine, nutmeg may be used in potato dishes, processed meat products, soups, sauces and baked goods.

Popular among the Dutch, nutmeg is often added to vegetables like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and string beans. Curry powder from Japan may include nutmeg as an ingredient and a bun called “kavring” in Norway also contains the spice. Nutmeg is a popular addition to mixed drinks in the Caribbean and a traditional topping for eggnog in the U.S.

Nutmeg can also be made into a butter by expression. The resulting butter is a semi-solid, reddish brown spread that tastes and smells like nutmeg. A main ingredient in nutmeg butter is trimyristin, which can be turned into myristic acid, a fatty acid that can be used in place of cocoa butter, or mixed with other fats like cottonseed or palm oil.

My experiences with nutmeg had been fairly limited; as a spice added to baked goods or as a garnish for holiday eggnog. However, most recently I discovered its value in savory cooking.

I found it interesting to read a “nutrition facts” label for nutmeg. Nutmeg contains 37 calories, 3 grams of total fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, 3 grams of carbohydrate and 1 gram of fiber per tablespoon.

This may seem like a lot for a spice, but keep in mind the small quantity that is often used in baking and cooking. A recipe for apple pie, for instance, may contain a teaspoon of nutmeg; divide that quantity by the number of servings the pie provides, and you will find it does not amount to much.

A Rhode Island native, I recently learned that Connecticut is known as “the nutmeg state.” It gets this nickname from the legend that some unscrupulous Connecticut traders would whittle “nutmeg” out of wood, creating a “wooden nutmeg” -- a term which came to mean any fraud, according to The Connecticut State Library.

Whatever its origins, nutmeg is worth a try.

Catherine Schneider is a Registered Dietitian in the Food and Nutrition Department at The William W. Backus Hospital. This column should not replace advice from your physician. E-mail Schneider and all of the Healthy Living columnists at healthyliving@wwbh.org or comment on their blog at backushospital.org.

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