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Published: Tuesday, 11/18/2003

Nutmeg: It's more than baking spice, garnish

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

You can steep cinnamon, chop or slice fresh ginger, and crush dried sage. When it comes to nutmeg, you grate this nut-like spice or buy it ground.

Nutmeg is often thought of as a spice used in baking and to sprinkle on eggnog during the holidays.

In fact, it can be used in a wide variety of dishes, from soup to ice cream, and quick breads to pumpkin pie. It is even used in vegetable and poultry dishes and turns up in gourmet presentations.

While most of us use the ground nutmeg purchased in spice jars, those who want greater depth of flavor are likely to grind whole nutmeg using a grinder or grater.

Whole nutmeg is the seed of an evergreen tree native to the Molucca Islands. Actually the tree, which grows to a height of 15 to 30 feet, produces both nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is the seed; mace is the lacy covering. Both are covered with a fleshy, peach-like fruit. Nutmeg grows today on several Indonesian Islands, in India, Sri Lanka, and on the island of Grenada.

Nutmeg was among the spices that Christopher Columbus sought when he sailed the ocean looking for the East Indies. The seed was extremely popular from the 15th to 19th centuries, according to Food Lover's Companion.

Grenada is known for the production of nutmeg, which flavors a wide variety of Grenadian cuisine. The nutmeg tree first appeared in Grenada around the early 1800s, when British spice traders brought it to the West Indies from the East Indies.

Nutmeg is more pungent and sweeter than mace. It is a baking spice, but is used to spice up various meats in the processed foods industry. Nutmeg can be substituted for mace, which is most popular in European foods, both savory and sweet dishes.

Whole nutmeg freshly ground is said to be superior to that which is commercially ground and packaged. A nutmeg grater, about $4, has a fine-rasp, slightly curved surface. A nutmeg grinder ($25) resembles a pepper grinder except the cavity is designed to hold the whole nutmeg; a knob turns the grinder, pushing the whole nutmeg into place for shaving.

Nutmeg is often paired with cinnamon when cooking and baking. Sweet Potato Casserole, which is seasoned with both spices, is a recipe from Chef Walter Royal of Angus Barn in Raleigh, N.C.

Honey Pumpkin Tea Bread is an easy-to-make quick bread spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. It is delicious for breakfast or with an afternoon cup of tea.

And combine cinnamon, nutmeg, and brown sugar with pineapple chunks and whole berry cranberry sauce to make a warm cranberry compote sauce to accompany gingerbread or vanilla ice cream.

Pumpkin pies are often flavored with nutmeg, including Honeyed Pumpkin Pie with Broiled Praline Topping.

You'll also find eggnog paired with nutmeg in beverages and baking.

A classic eggnog is described as a homogeneous blend of milk or cream, beaten eggs, sugar, nutmeg, and liquor such as rum, brandy, or whiskey. In the interest of food safety, raw eggs are no longer advised as an ingredient when preparing eggnog. (Eggs must be cooked or pasteurized.) Commercial eggnog, which is pasteurized and without liquor, is available in cartons. Canned eggnog is also available.

Or, make Brandied Eggnog with your blender. It's an eggless eggnog, so there's little egg flavor. French vanilla ice cream can be used for the eggnog, but at this time of the year you can find eggnog ice cream from brands such as Edy's. Adjust the liqueur taste as desired.

Egg Nog Torte ($34) is included in the Holiday 2003 Williams-Sonoma catalog (800-541-2233). Created by American chocolatier Fran Bigelow, the dense confection is made of layers of white chocolate-almond cake with a white chocolate truffle filling that is rich with egg flavorings of bourbon, rum, and nutmeg. The cake is finished with a snowy white chocolate glaze. Serve with espresso or hot buttered rum.

Innovative chefs are adapting the idea of using nutmeg as a garnish sprinkled on custards, cookies, or creamy desserts.

Last Saturday, Kenny Gilbert, executive chef at Sea Island Lodge in Brunswick, Ga., presented a four-course Contemporary Thanksgiving Feast cooking class at the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan.

The second course of the feast was a very fun Hubbard Squash Cappuccino, Vanilla Salsify Froth, Rabbit Confit and Nutmeg. Presented in a cappuccino cup, the squash soup was served cappuccino style: the froth was vanilla salsify sprinkled with nutmeg. The soup spoon placed at the side of the dish was filled with shredded rabbit confit.

“I love sweet spices of nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger. Nutmeg goes with squash,” said the chef in a phone interview from his office prior to the event. “It's part of the autumn harvest, the smelling of the ginger, molasses; you relate this to hearty dishes known to have sweet spices. I'm trying to get the same flavor with a different preparation. You don't want the nutmeg too strong. So a little grating works.”

At the resort, the chef serves similar soups on a rectangular plate with a doily. The soup is placed in the cup, topped with froth and grated nutmeg.

At the Ohio cooking class, “To offset this dish, there's Chef's Blend Micro-Greens (from Chef's Garden) and the soup spoon of rabbit confit is lifted into the bowl by the diner, similar to sugar cubes in a cup of cappuccino,” he says. “You stir the soup to incorporate the froth and the rabbit is spread throughout. No one flavor dominates.”

The rabbit confit is an adaptation of duck confit, a French technique of packing duck in salt and spices and then cooking slowly in a covered pot in the excess fat. To make rabbit confit, the chef cures the rabbit and slow-cooks it in duck fat, then shreds the meat.

He serves similar versions of this soup, including caramelized Vidalia onion soup with smoked gruyere cheese, gnocchi dumplings, and a duck confit. (This dish is not spiced with nutmeg as the squash and rabbit version is.)

Whether you sprinkle nutmeg on frothy soup, eggnog, or use it in baking, this spice is both humble and elegant.

Two other cooking classes are scheduled at the Culinary Vegetable Institute. Holiday Entertaining is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 6 with Chef William Reynolds of Washburn Culinary School in Chicago. It is priced at $135 for institute members and $150 for nonmembers. Kids Holiday Cooking with Farmer Jones for youngsters ages 7 to 12 will be 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Dec. 13, at $85 for members and $95 for nonmembers. Information: 419-499-7500.

For more stories on food, see www.toledoblade.com/food



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