Botanically known as Myristica fragrans, the nutmeg tree originated in Banda, the largest of the Molucca Spice Islands of Indonesia. In the first century A.D., Roman author Pliny speaks of a tree bearing nuts with two flavors. Emperor Henry VI had the streets of Rome fumigated with nutmeg before his coronation. In the the sixth century, nutmeg was brought to Constantinople by Arab merchants. In the fourteenth century, half a kilogram ( a little over a pound) of nutmeg cost as much as three sheep or a cow.
Since the 1500s, several European countries sent people to retrieve this precious spice. The trip was so difficult that two out of three fleets of ships did not make it back and, those that did, often returned damaged. Despite the travel conditions, Holland, England and Portugal fought to dominate the nutmeg market. It was thought to be an aphrodisiac and have curative effects; people believed that it could cure the plague. The three European powers fought for a long time, until the Portuguese withdrew from the fight to concentrate their efforts in the South American colonies. The Dutch and British finally came to an agreement: the Dutch would have the exclusive rights to the sale of nutmeg and in exchange the English would be given a small island in North America, now known as Manhattan.
The Dutch waged a bloody war, including the massacre and enslavement of the inhabitants of the island of Banda, just to control nutmeg production in the East Indies. In 1760, the price of nutmeg in London was 85 to 90 shillings per pound, a price kept artificially high by the Dutch, who voluntarily burned full warehouses of nutmeg in Amsterdam. The Dutch held control of the Spice Islands until World War II. The British East India Company brought the nutmeg tree to Penang, Singapore, India, Sri Lanka, the West Indies and most notably Grenada, where it is the national symbol and is emblazoned on the country’s red, yellow and green flag.
The nutmeg tree is a tropical evergreen that grows to about 12 m (40 ft) and can reach as high as 20 m (66 ft)., with oblong egg-shaped leaves and small, bell-like light yellow flowers that give off a distinct aroma when in bloom. The fruit is light yellow with red and green markings, resembling an apricot or a large plum. As the fruit matures, the outer fleshy covering bursts to reveal the seed. The seed is covered with red membranes called aril, the mace portion of the nutmeg. The nut is then dried for 2 months, until the inner nut rattles inside the shell. It is then shelled to reveal the egg-shaped nutmeat which is the edible portion of the nutmeg. Second-rate nuts are pressed for the oil, which is used in perfume and in the food industry.
The bark of the tree is a dark grey-green which produces a yellow juice which oxidizes to red. It is thickly branched with dense foliage and tough, dark green leaves about 10 cm (4 in) long. It prefers the rich volcanic soil and hot, humid conditions of the tropics. Nutmeg is propagated by seeds in nursery beds and, after about six months, they are transplanted to the fields. It takes five years for the trees to flower. Fruit bearing occurs after 15 years and the trees continue to bear fruit for about fifty years. A single mature tree produces up to 2,000 nuts per year. The fruit is often collected with a long pole with a basket attached (resembling a lacrosse stick), to pick the fruit from the trees. In Indonesia this is called a gai gai. When the fruit is harvested the seed is removed, then the mace from the seed. The mace is flattened between boards and the seeds dried until they rattle, when they are shelled. Nutmeg is not one spice, but two. Mace is also derived from the nutmeg fruit.
In Western cuisine, nutmeg and mace are more popular for cakes, crackers and stewed fruits; nutmeg is sometimes used to flavor cheese sauces (fondue or Béchamel sauce). The combination of spinach with nutmeg is a classic and nutmeg is often found in Italian stuffed pastas, e. g., ravioli and lasagna.
Whole nuts are preferable to ground nutmeg, as flavor deteriorates quickly. Whole nuts will keep indefinitely and can be grated as needed with a nutmeg grater. Store both ground and whole nutmeg away from sunlight in airtight containers.
Tortellini en Brodo
(Traditional Filled Pasta in Broth)
6 cups homemade or store bought low sodium chicken broth
- 1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, plus additional for serving
- 7 oz ground lean pork
- 7 oz finely chopped prosciutto
- 3 ½ oz ground turkey breast
- 2 oz butter
- 1 egg
- black pepper
- 1 lb all-purpose flour
- 4 eggs
- salt to taste
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
For the tortellini filling:
In a pan, melt the butter then add ground pork and turkey breast. Cook for about 15 minutes, then add chopped prosciutto and continue cooking for a couple of minutes. Remove from the heat and cool.
Once cool, add the grated cheese and one egg. Mix until soft and smooth. Add a pinch of salt and nutmeg.
This is the classic tortellini filling, but there are many variations: you can use Mortadella instead of prosciutto, beef instead of pork or chicken instead of turkey.
For the pasta:
Prepare the pasta dough by thoroughly combining the eggs, flour, salt and olive oil. Let rest under a kitchen towel for about 30 minutes. Then roll out into a thin sheet on a pasta machine.
To shape the tortellini, cut the sheet of dough into horizontal slices and then cut them vertically, so that you have ¼ in squares. Place a tiny amount of filling at the center of each square and fold into a triangle, sealing the edges. (If the pasta is too dry, brush the edges with water.)
Squeeze the ends of the triangle together with the point facing upwards and place the corners on top of one another and press until they are sealed. Place them on a lightly floured kitchen towel. Repeat with the rest of the pasta. After the tortellini are shaped, let them rest for a couple of hours before cooking, so they harden.
In a large pot, bring the stock to a boil. Season the stock with salt and pepper, add the tortellini and cook until tender, about 2-3 minutes. Ladle the tortellini and some stock into soup bowls and sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Ricotta & Spinach Malfatti
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 onions, diced
- 3 celery stalks, diced
- 3 carrots, diced
- 1 (28-ounce) can Italian whole, peeled tomatoes
- Handful of fresh basil, chopped
- Salt and pepper
- 4 pounds spinach
- 2 cups ricotta cheese
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 cup of flour
- Salt and pepper
In a large saucepan, the heat olive oil, then add the garlic and onions. Cook, about 3 to 4 minutes,. Next, stir in the celery and carrots. Season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook for about 3 more minutes, then add the canned tomatoes. Bring the mixture to a boil. Once boiling, lower the flame and simmer until the carrots are tender. Mix the sauce with a hand (immersion) blender or any appliance that can easily purée vegetables. Finish with chopped basil and season to taste. Keep the sauce warm while you prepare the malfatti.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Once boiling, stir in spinach and cook for about 2 minutes, until leaves turn bright green. Drain quickly and cool them in an ice water bath to preserve the color. Drain well. Spread over paper towels to dry. Once dried, finely chop and set aside.
Drain the ricotta in a sieve if liquid is present. In a large bowl, mash ricotta with a fork. Stir in the eggs, 3/4 cup of Parmigiano, grated nutmeg, salt and pepper. Add chopped spinach to the mixture. Stir well.
Boil a large pot of salted water.
With a sieve or flour sifter, sprinkle the flour on a large cutting board. Form some roundish, walnut-sized or larger ovals of the spinach mixture and roll them briefly over the flour. Prepare the remaining malfatti. in the same manner.
Gently place the malfatti in the salted boiling water and as soon as they float to the surface, remove them with a slotted spoon to a warm buttered baking dish. If the first batch of malfatti are lukewarm by the time you are done boiling all of them, put the baking dish in a hot oven for just a couple of minutes.
Pour a plentiful amount of the warm tomato sauce on top of the malfatti, add some Parmigiano and basil to garnish and serve them on warm individual plates.
Serves 4 to 6
Roasted Butternut Squash in Butter and Nutmeg
- 2 lbs butternut squash, peeled and seeded (about 1 large one)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons salted butter
- 1/4 teaspoon fresh nutmeg, grated
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Cut peeled and seeded squash into 1-inch cubes.
Spray a baking sheet or dish with nonstick cooking spray.
Place squash on baking pan and drizzle with olive oil.
Toss to coat and arrange in a single layer.
Bake for 45 minutes, or until very tender and beginning to brown, stirring occasionally.
Transfer to a serving dish or bowl.
Melt butter ina small saucepan over medium-low heat, until butter turns a nut-colored brown, about 4 minutes– don’t burn it!
Pour over squash, toss to coat and sprinkle with nutmeg.
A traditional Italian baked pasta, with chicken, cheese, sherry and nutmeg.
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 (8-ounce) package sliced mushrooms
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 (14-ounce) can low-sodium chicken broth
- 1 1/3 cups half-and-half
- 3 tablespoons dry sherry
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 3 cups (1 pound) cooked boneless, skinless chicken, cut into strips
- 1/2 pound spaghetti, broken in half and cooked according to package directions
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Melt butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms; sauté 4 minutes or until browned. Sprinkle with flour and toss to combine. Add broth and half-and-half; cook, stirring often, until mixture comes to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in sherry, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Remove from heat and stir in chicken.
Combine cooked spaghetti and chicken mixture; toss gently and spoon into a greased 13 x 9-inch baking dish or shallow 3-quart baking dish; sprinkle with cheese. Bake 20 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly.
Baked Italian Donuts
- 1/3 cup soft butter
- 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/2 cup drained ricotta cheese
- 2 cups flour
- Powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar
Beat butter, egg and sugar together in an electric mixer. Mix the flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg in a separate bowl. Add the flour mixture to the butter ingredients alternating with the milk and ricotta. Fill two greased donut pans, about 2/3 full (my pans were purchased from King Arthur). Bake at 350°F for about 25 minutes depending on size.
Sprinkle with powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar before serving.
- Spice is Nice! (raggedyhenfarm.wordpress.com)
- Lorraine Pascale’s Butternut and sweet potato lasagne with sage, toasted pine nuts and nutmeg (lickthebowlclean.com)
- Nutmeg (lukehoney.typepad.com)
- Rum, Nutmeg and Chocolate (aroundtheworldin44feet.wordpress.com)
- Nutmeg Know Your Herbs and Spices (foodiefriendsfridaydailydish.com)