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Your guide to the world of herbs and spices—how to spot them, where to get them, and how to cook with them

Spice Hunting: Nutmeg

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[Photographs: Max Falkowitz]

My grandmother used to own two devices whose sole purpose was to grind nutmeg. Shaped like flying saucers with a spring-based grinder, they couldn't be repurposed grind anything else. They were, in essence, nutmeg bling.

This puzzled me growing up, as I didn't much see the point in such whimsical affectations for a wrinkled marble ground into the family ginger cookies. Fortunately age brings wisdom, understanding, and one of my grandmother's nutmeg grinders (a sweet mid-century modern model, chrome and all). By now I'm so attached to the spice I find myself lingering over new nutmeg bling myself. Food, it seems, has a way of coming full circle.

Nutmeg deserves all this bling both for its depth of flavor and amazing versatility. Even when you think you know nutmeg, it jumps out to surprise you with some new flavor pairing. After about 1,000 years of circulation on the global spice routes, nutmeg's worked its way into a significant fraction of Asian, European, Middle Eastern, and African cuisines. It seems to go with just about anything, and its rich, fragrant flavor and aroma are intoxicating.*

* Which, if you ingest a couple teaspoons of the stuff or more in a sitting, is literally true. Nutmeg, as many low-fi websites are thrilled to tell you, can get you high. And really sick. And possibly kill you. The culprit is the essential oil Myristicin, a neurotoxin that induces marijuana-like effects before inducing all sorts of bodily agonies. So kids, stay in school and don't do nutmeg.

How to Use Nutmeg

Yes, nutmeg is a classic member of the sweet spice quartet, but more than allspice, cloves, and even cinnamon, nutmeg can stand on its own (and its taste is often improved without those harmonizing flavors). Like other sweet spices, it plays nicely with starchy potatoes and squash, and dark meats like lamb and pork. It's a no-brainer on dark liquor cocktails, punches of all sorts, and hot winter beverages. But it can branch out in every direction.

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Nutmeg livens up spinach and Greek cheese in puff pastry-wrapped spinach pies.

Spinach, for example, slowly cooked in olive oil or butter, is brought to life by a sprinkle of the stuff. As is soft, tangy white cheeses like chèvre. When I'm eating caramel-based sweets, I'm more likely than not to grind on some nutmeg just before tasting. Many an uninspired soup of mine has been rescued by some nutmeg: cream of pumpkin, of mushroom, and of carrot. And I've found it surprisingly tasty with chunk-able fruit like mangoes and bananas.

Nutmeg has a chameleon quality: Its flavor bends to how it's used. To accentuate its bracing initial punch, I like to pair it with lemon zest. To draw out its slow-dance melodies, few things work as well as dark liquors and roasted or dried fruit (especially dates and apricots). But using nutmeg can be a study in contrasts: I love how its rounded sweetness smoothes out cumin's stinky barbs, and how its almost herbal flavors add ridiculous complexity to sweet ingredients.

Such uses are strong indications of why nutmeg's such a fantastic spice—its nuance exhibits extraordinary balance. While many spices are one-note flavors that need to be harmonized, nutmeg can sing several tunes at once, doing the job of several other ingredients and uniting disparate elements of a dish.

The guidelines to use it are pretty simple. Perhaps more than any other spice, nutmeg needs to be freshly ground from a nutmeg nut. Even the best pre-ground stuff can taste like sawdust from a furniture factory after a month. And since the whole nuts keep more or less forever, your upkeep is pretty low. It can overwhelm other flavors easily, so add it by the pinch. And its aroma is as powerful as it is fleeting, so unless I'm baking with it, I add it at the last possible minute before serving. Another reason to invest in some nutmeg bling: so you can grind it right at the table.

Recommended Nutmeg Grinders

This beauty from Peugeot is what I'd keep out at the table, but at $70 the price is a little steep. Some other flying saucer designs are much more affordable, such as this pretty but slightly indulgent $30 model from Frieling, or a more sensible $20 version. If you don't want to shell out for a nutmeg grinder, you can always use a trusty microplane.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries.

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