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Nutmeg: The Littlest Shaver

Nutmeg is one of those spices that comes out of the cupboard only in December, mostly for the purpose of enhancing eggnog drinks. Otherwise, American cooks seem reluctant to use nutmeg in anything other than desserts featuring apples and pears. Oh, it might occasionally show up in spinach too. In truth, it’s a versatile spice that is good in many dishes.

When I was working in the top restaurant kitchens in France, I tasted the effect of nutmeg on potatoes, turnips, onions, a variety of sauced vegetables, soups, savory tarts and custards. Nutmeg always sweetened up the mix in a subtle way, lending a slightly spicy taste. Without exception, the judicious addition of nutmeg to these savory dishes was an improvement. To my taste, squashes of all descriptions can hardly get along without it.

I’m not referring to nutmeg that is sold ground in a jar but to freshly ground nutmeg powder, produced by rubbing the whole nutmeg across a fine (and sharp) grater’s surface.

The nutmeg tree is a tropical evergreen that grows in the East Indies and contains two spices: the nutmeg seed itself and lacy membrane that, when dried and ground, becomes mace. The grayish-brown oval-shaped nutmeg seed is as hard as a rock and only about one inch long. As a seed, it keeps for years without deteriorating. But once ground, its flavor and aroma quickly diminish.

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These recipes use nutmeg as a key spice. The Golden Velvet Soup is a puree of root vegetables--carrots, rutabaga and parsnips--that gets a lift from the nutmeg. The browned onions and mushrooms with spinach are slightly sweetened and transformed by a sprinkling of nutmeg. The Maple Syrup Eggnog Custards are similarly effected. Try adding a touch more nutmeg to each dish at serving time; it will considerably enhance both taste and fragrance.

You’ll notice that the custard and soup recipes call for nonfat dry milk. Its primary value is the smooth, creamy consistency that it imparts to mixtures without adding fat. Used in careful quantities, it rarely modifies the taste.

Smooth as velvet, this soup is creamy without the benefit of any cream; the roots do it with the help of a little nonfat dry milk . The nutmeg uplifts and rounds out the flavor. The thinner the vegetable slices (try the thin processor slicing disc), the more quickly they cook.

GOLDEN VELVET SOUP

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1 tablespoon safflower oil

1 large onion, sliced

2 medium parsnips, peeled and sliced

1 large rutabaga, peeled and sliced

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2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced

4 to 4 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

2 tablespoons nonfat dry milk powder

Freshly grated nutmeg

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Salt, optional

Freshly ground pepper

Heat oil in 2-quart pot over medium-high heat. Add onion, parsnips, rutabaga and carrots. Cook, uncovered, until hot and fragrant, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add 3 1/2 cups broth and bring to boil. Simmer, covered, until vegetables are very tender, about 25 to 28 minutes. Puree mixture with nonfat dry milk in processor or blender until very smooth.

Return mixture to pot. Add at least 1/2 cup broth or more for desired consistency (should be on thick side). Add 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, salt if needed, and pepper. (Can be made ahead and refrigerated 2 days or frozen 3 months.) Serve hot or cold. Serve with light sprinkling of extra nutmeg. Makes about 4 1/4 cups.

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Each serving contains about:

182 calories; 722 mg sodium; 1 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 30 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 3 grams fiber; 24% calories from fat.

These vegetables cook up in a flash; the freshly grated nutmeg provides the final unifying flavor. A simple offering, this vegetable works well with game and roasted meats.

BROWNED ONIONS AND MUSHROOMS WITH SPINACH AND NUTMEG

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1/2 tablespoon safflower oil

1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter or margarine

1 large onion, peeled, halved and cut julienne

8 ounces medium mushrooms, stems trimmed, quartered

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1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon sugar

3 cups packed young spinach leaves, well rinsed

Freshly ground nutmeg

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Freshly ground pepper

Heat oil and butter in 10-inch non-stick skillet over high heat. Add onion, mushrooms, 1/4 teaspoon salt and sugar. Cook, stirring only occasionally, until vegetables are browned but tender-crisp, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add spinach leaves. Stir-fry until spinach wilts, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add 3/4 teaspoon nutmeg and pepper. Adjust seasonings to taste. (May be made several hours ahead and kept at room temperature. Reheat quickly over medium-high heat.) Serve hot with light sprinkling of extra nutmeg. Makes 3 to 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

267 calories; 489 mg sodium; 5 mg cholesterol; 25 grams fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1.4 grams fiber; 85% calories from fat.

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The subtlety of the maple syrup makes a nice sauce for these eggnog custards. Pass extra maple syrup, if desired. The custards should be well chilled before serving.

MAPLE SYRUP EGGNOG CUSTARDS

1/2 cup pure maple syrup

4 eggs

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1/3 cup sugar

1/4 cup nonfat dry milk powder

2 1/2 cups milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

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1 teaspoon dark rum

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly grated nutmeg

Maple syrup, optional for serving

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Boil maple syrup in small saucepan until somewhat thickened, about 3 minutes. Chill 10 minutes, then divide syrup evenly in 6 generously buttered souffle dishes or (1/2-cup) custard cups. Place cups in baking pan just large enough to hold them.

Whisk eggs in 1-quart mixing bowl until frothy. Whisk in sugar and nonfat dry milk until well combined. Whisk in milk, vanilla, rum, salt and 1 teaspoon nutmeg. Strain custard. Fill souffle dishes or custard cups to rims, dividing evenly. Set pan on oven rack, placed in middle of oven. Pour enough hot (not boiling) water into pan to reach halfway up sides of dishes.

Bake at 350 degrees until knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 to 35 minutes. Use metal spatula to carefully transfer custards to cooling rack. When cool, cover and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 5 hours or overnight.

To serve, run knife around edge of each dish. Carefully invert onto individual serving plates, coating each with syrup from bottom of dish. Lightly sprinkle top with freshly grated nutmeg. If desired, serve additional maple syrup. Makes 6 servings.

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Each serving contains about:

263 calories; 406 mg sodium; 156 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 38 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams protein; 0 fiber; 23% calories from fat.


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