The smell of fresh nutmeg is highly evocative: as I was grating some for our photo shoot, a colleague said it reminded her of Christmas. Another said it made her crave rice pudding.
The small brown 'nuts' are actually the kernels of a fruit that also produces mace (not the chemical spray that incapacitates criminals, but another spice). The fruit surrounds the mace, which in turn is wrapped tightly around the nutmeg. The two spices are pulled apart and dried separately.
Nutmeg is sold ground in small, glass jars, but better flavour is achieved by buying the whole seeds and grating them as needed. Like all pre-ground spices, nutmeg loses its flavour and aroma quickly. The oval-shaped, wrinkled seeds are quite hard and it is best to grate them with a special nutmeg grater or a fine rasp. The interior is pale with darker veins running through it.
The spice's flavour is pervasive and just a little is required to flavour a dish. Most recipes ask for it by the 'pinch', rarely by the teaspoonful. This is wise because nutmeg has narcotic properties that become apparent only when too much is consumed. In smaller amounts the effect is said to be a soporific. Holistic healers sometimes recommend tiny amounts of nutmeg or nutmeg oil to relieve nausea and stress and to aid circulation. In larger doses (according to an online discussion I found between people who attempted to get high from it), a nutmeg overdose can cause temporary blindness, migraines and hallucinations. These people advise against trying it.
Nutmeg isn't used often in Asian food but it is popular in many Western cuisines, especially in the Netherlands, which has historically dominated the nutmeg trade. It is also used in the cuisines of the Middle East, North Africa and the Caribbean. It is often incorporated into spice mixtures such as quatre epices (in France), garam masala (India) and ras al hanout (Morocco).
Nutmeg is used frequently in desserts, particularly those containing cream and eggs (such as eggnog and custards) and is a good match with fruits, especially if mixed with a little ground cinnamon. Try mixing some nutmeg into crumb toppings, shortbread or biscotti.
Savoury preparations also make use of the spice - it is almost essential in bechamel sauce (also known as white sauce) and any dish containing spinach. It adds a nice touch to pumpkin or sweet potato purees, soups and any creamy dish with cheese. Potato gratin, made with garlic, cheese and cream, is heavenly with a little grated nutmeg.