I Spice: Nutmeg
Um, okay, so it is time to admit the truth: Nutmeg is not one of those spices that calls to me from the spice cabinet.
Yes, I have used it in classic Indian dishes, and in American recipes such as eggnog and butternut squash risotto. But it is not a spice easily accessible in my kitchen. I am sure it is hidden somewhere behind all the jars from when I used it last . . . perhaps well over a year ago.
But I do know folks who swear by the taste, so I decided to investigate and see what I was missing. And what better person to talk to than James Peterson, the highly prolific teacher, photographer and award-winning author of many cookbooks.
“On a recent trip to India I was lucky enough to see nutmeg, round and nutlike, being separated from its outer coating of mace," he said. "The mace forms a filigree pattern around the nutmeg that’s very reminiscent of Art Nouveau. Unfortunately, by the time the nutmeg makes it to our shores, the mace has been removed and is usually sold powdered. As far as I can tell, the flavor of mace and that of nutmeg are completely indistinguishable."
Ah, yes, of course: mace! How could I forget? In Indian cooking they are the twins; where there is one, the other is bound to show up. (Originally from the Spice Islands, nutmeg is now likely to come from the island of Grenada.)
Peterson reminded me of a sort of old wives’ tale I had heard when I was a kid: that eating enough nutmeg would “induce out-of-body states.” Thankfully, or sadly, neither he nor I have ever had enough nutmeg to have that happen. But it shows an important point about the nature of the spice: It is super-potent, so use a little bit. I loved the phrase in Peterson's following recipe: It should be “barely perceptible.”
There are tons of lovely ways to use nutmeg. It’s an essential element of pumpkin pie spice, and is combined with ginger, cloves, and white pepper to make quatre épices, used to flavor pâtés. Try it in a Feta and Kale Tart or Baked Squash and Parmesan Cheese Pudding for vegetarian main dishes.
From Peterson: “It is best added at the last minute to foods, and works best with bechamel sauce and with spinach. It’s a great flavoring for ricotta- or pumpkin-filled ravioli, and (of course) atop eggnog. It’s also used in sausages and pâtés and for desserts, in spice cakes.”
From photographer, Web site designer and farmers’ friend Tana Butler: “Grate carrots and saute in a light amount of salted butter until just wilted and very warm. Grate on nutmeg and serve immediately.”
From pastry chef Josh Short (of Buzz Bakery in Alexandria): “I use nutmeg a lot in pies as it enhances the flavors. Cinnamon is great, but it can be overpowering sometimes. Nutmeg is classically used in Danish dough for sweet rolls along with cardamom. Many times if I'm making a compote or sauce and I don't want to add more acid to bring out the flavors, I will add a subtle spice like nutmeg to marry it together.”
And iSpice reader Laurie V. Soileau loves it not only in food but also in “a chilled glass full to the brim with my favorite Caribbean cocktail, the creamy, coconut-pineapple-rum-laden Painkiller, with just a smidgen of the grated seed atop.”
Nutmeg is best bought whole. Once grated, its flavor rapidly dissipates. As long as it’s whole, it will keep for years on the shelf. (That last claim was made by Peterson. It gives me renewed hope that the whole nutmeg I found in my kitchen cabinet still has some life in it.)
-- Monica Bhide
Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli
Adapted from "Cooking," by James Peterson (Ten Speed Press, 2007).
One 10-ounce package frozen whole spinach, defrosted, with excess moisture squeezed out (may substitute 1 pound fresh spinach, stemmed)
15 ounces whole-milk ricotta, preferably fresh
Freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
Two 10-ounce packages square wonton wrappers
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into several pieces
4 sage leaves
(If using fresh spinach, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the spinach and blanch for no more than 30 seconds, then drain in a colander. Squeeze out any excess moisture, being careful not to displace the leaves' natural juices. Coarsely chop.)
Season the ricotta lightly with nutmeg (keep stirring and tasting until you get the amount right; the nutmeg should be barely perceptible), then season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the chopped spinach and mix to form the ravioli filling.
Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Place a teaspoon of the filling mixture in the center of a wonton wrapper. Brush the edges of the wrapper with cold water and place a second wrapper on top, then press all around the sides to create a seal. Transfer to the lined baking sheet. Repeat to use all of the filling, making 48 ravioli.
Bring a large pot of water to a barely a boil over medium heat. Working in batches, use a slotted spatula or Chinese spider to lower a few ravioli into the water at a time; cook for 5 minutes.
While the ravioli are cooking, melt the butter with the sage in a large saute pan or skillet. After the butter begins to froth and the froth then subsides, remove from the heat.
Use a slotted spatula or Chinese spider to drain the ravioli, shaking off any excess water, then transfer to the butter-sage mixture. Toss gently to coat evenly and heat through, then transfer to plates and serve immediately.
Per serving: 458 calories, 16 g protein, 41 g carbohydrates, 25 g fat, 17 g saturated fat, 82 mg cholesterol, 486 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar
The Food Section
September 11, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: I Spice , Recipes | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, nutmeg, recipes
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