By Christianne Ingegno
Applications Editor Nutmeg's history dates back to Columbus' early days of exploration. When he set sail for the East Indies, nutmeg was one of the spices for which he searched. It was extremely popular from the 15th to the 19th century, believed to be a cure-all for many maladies, including nausea, indigestion and other gastric upsets. Today, it remains a beloved classic for culinary use. Native to Banda, the largest of Indonesia's Molucca islands -- also known as the spice islands -- nutmeg comes from the seed of a tropical evergreen tree, Myristica fragrans, which yields both nutmeg and mace. The tree produces aromatic leaves and small yellow flowers that bear fruit containing a brownish-colored seed (nutmeg), covered in a lacy, red membrane (mace). For superior flavor, whole nutmeg is available and can be ground fresh as needed with a grater (similar to a cheese grater) or grinder (similar to a pepper mill). Commercially ground or packaged nutmeg also is available, but it loses some flavor. Many cuisines use nutmeg in signature dishes. It's often used in Indian curries and Caribbean items, but many regional or traditional foods also benefit from its warm aroma and sweet, spicy notes. Used sparingly, it lends an abundance of flavor to many dishes, both sweet and savory. Nutmeg adds a kick to baked goods or milk- or cream-based applications, like custard or eggnog. It works well in sauces, and on fruits and vegetables, as well as in starch-based dishes, like pasta and rice. It's also a good seasoning for poultry, pork, fish and shellfish, eggs, cheese-based dishes, chocolate, and condiments, like pickles and chutneys. It also retains its flavor well in processed foods, like sausages. Just a small amount of this classic spice turns an ordinary dish into something extraordinary. Use it judiciously, adding it in small doses, as over-seasoning creates too strong a flavor that's almost bitter. Heating releases the flavor even more, so incorporate it fully into the dish and allowed it to heat thoroughly, adjusting accordingly.
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