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There's a lot more to nutmeg than holiday cookies

There's a lot more to nutmeg than holiday cookies
Fresh nutmeg dresses up a parsnip gratin. (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

Just because the holidays are over doesn't mean you've given up baking or that you've stopped craving nutmeg. Probably quite the opposite: You're having gingerbread dreams, even if they're hampered by your New Year's diet. So take advantage of the fact that you've restocked your spice cabinet — another very good New Year's resolution — and explore the sweet, warm and slightly peppery flavor of fresh nutmeg.

The key to getting the best perfume and piquancy from nutmeg is to grate the whole nut-shaped spice yourself, freshly and as you need it. This is an easy task, as you can use the same rasp grater that you use for citrus — or that cute vintage nutmeg grater salvaged from your grandmother's kitchen. Simply grate the stuff onto a piece of waxed paper for easy measuring and cleanup.

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We all learn the importance of the spice trade in grade school, but few of us ever really consider nutmeg's dramatic provenance. Native to the tiny and remote Banda Islands in eastern Indonesia, nutmeg was first introduced to the Romans by Asian and Arab traders.  Prized as a flavor-all, nutmeg's popularity grew into a craze by the Middle Ages, with the spice being touted as a preservative, cure-all, even an aphrodisiac (a handy reminder that Valentine's Day is coming up). It was even believed that a dose of nutmeg could ward off the plague.

Nutmeg was so lucrative that Europeans fought for market dominance for hundreds of years. In the early 1600s, the Dutch controlled the trade of nutmeg by capturing all but one of the Banda Islands. The venture was so profitable that in 1667 the Dutch swapped New Amsterdam (today's Manhattan) to the English for the tiny Banda island of Run to secure the nutmeg monopoly. The Dutch controlled the nutmeg islands until seedlings were eventually smuggled from the islands in the 19th century.

Similar in size and color to an apricot, nutmeg has a golden fleshy layer that splits to reveal a dark seed covered in a glossy red web. The pungent webbing is mace, nutmeg's harsher sister. (Mace, when first exposed to the air, smells remarkably like a just-popped can of Coke.) The nutmeg proper is encased in a thin, hard shell. Nutmeg and mace are dried before market and the fleshy outer layer can be made into jam or candy.

Nutmeg cookies with pears and walnut.
Nutmeg cookies with pears and walnut. (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

Most people taste nutmeg in baked goods, where it's usually overshadowed by spices such as cinnamon, ginger and clove. Instead, try a molasses cookie seasoned only with nutmeg. Studded with tender dried pears and toasted walnuts, the chewy treat is a spice cookie lover's dream.

Savory dishes seasoned with nutmeg tend to the old-fashioned: forcemeats, haggis, béchamel-coated vegetables and piped Duchess potatoes. A parsnip gratin plays off the idea of an old-school, white sauce-soaked casserole with a far less heavy hand: light cream and broth, just the right amount of Parmesan, a scattering of chard and a generous grating of nutmeg dress up the root vegetable. Pair the gratin with a roast chicken or pan-fried trout for a lovely winter dinner.

Spice Island braised delicata squash.
Spice Island braised delicata squash. (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

Or expand your repertoire of vegetarian entrees with a fragrant curry-like stew. Taking culinary cues from nutmeg's islands of origin, winter squash is braised in coconut milk scented with Indonesian aromatics and cracked whole nutmegs. A traditional stew from the Banda Islands would feature chunks of fresh local tuna — and you can find such recipes in James Oseland's excellent cookbook "Cradle of Flavor." It's a safe bet that winter squash isn't available in the Bandas, but this warm and richly flavored dish is a pretty terrific option for winter in Southern California.

Today, nutmeg grows in the Caribbean, Malaysia and India. It's reasonably priced and widely available. And although that nutmeg-dusted holiday eggnog may be a distant memory, there's no reason to forget the flavor of this lovely and storied spice.

Jeanne Kelley is a Los Angeles cook and cookbook author who also writes at www.jeannekelleykitchen.com.

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