The wrinkled exterior of a nutmeg seed hides a beautifully patterned interior. When grated, the distinctively flavoured seed releases a fragrant aroma.
What is it? The seed of the nutmeg fruit. The fruit is split open to reveal the seed surrounded by a lacy membrane - mace - which is also used as a spice (it has a similar flavour to nutmeg).
How is it available? The dry seed is sold either whole or ground into a powder. As with all spices, nutmeg, when ground, loses its flavour and fragrance quickly. It's much better to buy whole seeds and grind them immediately before using, with either a nutmeg grinder (which looks like a wide, squat pepper grinder) or a fine rasp grater.
What to look for? If you must buy ground nutmeg, smell it, if possible, before buying - if there's no fragrance, it won't have any flavour. When buying whole seeds, make sure they are hard and have
no exterior holes, which could indicate the presence of worms.
What else? A little nutmeg goes a long way; it should be used in small, subtle doses. Medicinally, it's said nutmeg relieves indigestion and insomnia; it's also believed to be an aphrodisiac. But in larger quantities (10 grams or more), users risk convulsions, palpitations, nausea and an acute psychiatric disorder called nutmeg psychosis.
How to use: the flavour goes well with milk, cream and eggs, so it's frequently used in sweet and savoury custards and sauces such as bechamel. The next time you make potatoes dauphinoise (thinly sliced potatoes baked until tender with cream, garlic and grated cheese), add a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg to give the gratin an elusive, subtle flavour. Use it also in sweet and savoury winter squash (such as pumpkin and kabocha) recipes, including pies, ravioli and soups. Nutmeg is frequently incorporated into Italian tomato-based sauces (see the Bolognese sauce recipe, left), where its presence isn't obvious - it should be just one tiny yet essential note in the rich blend of flavours.
Nutmeg goes well with spinach. To make the classic steakhouse side dish of creamed spinach, saute spinach leaves with butter, minced shallots and garlic until the vegetable is wilted. Chop the leaves (roughly or finely, depending on your preference). Make a bechamel by cooking butter mixed with enough plain flour to form a thin paste. Stir constantly over a medium heat so the mixture loses its floury taste. Stir in milk a little at a time, whisking constantly over a low heat. When the sauce becomes medium-thick, flavour it with salt, pepper and a little grated nutmeg. Mix with the spinach and serve either as is, or spread it into a shallow gratin dish, sprinkle with grated parmesan and grill or bake until the surface is lightly browned.