When I was quite small, maybe 6 or 7 years old, one of my favorite things was getting a good whiff of the jar of fresh nutmeg my Mom kept on the counter. It didn’t get used all that often, so this was a treat: a heady, spicy, citrusy scent that I absolutely loved. (Nutmeg and its effects have actually made it on to the catalog of psychotropic agents, so my love of its scent seems to have a certain primal origin, though my time with it was strictly innocent and brief.) Nowadays in my family nutmeg is most famously used in our Christmas “Whiskey Cake,” which is full of bourbon, raisins, walnuts, and lots of nutmeg. My mother’s annual production of these cakes is a major effort, requiring stirring help from my father and a bracing hit of bourbon to ready one for this task. As would be expected, a nice pour of bourbon is by far the best accompaniment to this cake. Also among the favorites in my family are my Grandma Earl’s Christmas sugar cookies, made with plenty of butter and (the secret ingredient) coconut, decorated with a little grating of fresh nutmeg. This is a spectacular cookie of modest appearance, but it is also beloved by my family.
So I come from a long line of nutmeg consumption, and likely even have it in my genes, given that generations before me have been eating these nutmeg-infused holiday standards. But I have a deep, stomach-turning aversion to nutmeg when it is used in savory dishes. Perhaps this is because the nutmeg signifies “sweet” to me, and I generally avoid sweetness when cooking savory foods. Cinnamon in Greek and Middle Eastern foods is used with great discretion. A hint of sugar in Thai curries is just that: a hint, the barest bit to highlight the blend of lemongrass, galangal, fish sauce and kaffir lime. Classic foods that might traditionally contain nutmeg — bechamel, quiche, squash ravioli, even (to my surprise) spanikopita* — are all ruined for me when nutmeg is broadly used. And it almost always is, unless I’m the cook who will be doing the eating.
* Scallions, dill, feta — yes. Nutmeg — no.
Bechamel, when prepared in classic French style, contains optional aromatics like onion, bay leaf and clove or nutmeg. Bechamel is never eaten on its own, but is what’s known as a “mother” sauce, forming the base for other sauces, most typically Mornay. The aromatics should not even be distinguishable, blending perfectly into the broad complexity of (in the case of Mornay) the cheese, which should be of good quality to do the heavy lifting of the sauce. The point here is subtlety. A tiny pinch of nutmeg will suffice in accomplishing this.
This same rule goes for squash ravioli. Come autumn this dish will be ubiquitous on the menus of Italian restaurants throughout the city, and for good reason. Roasted squash stuffed into pockets of pasta, served with a sauce of brown butter and sage, and garnished with parmigiano-reggiano — this is perfection. Squash has a natural sweetness that the earthy sage and nutty cheese complement beautifully; the browned butter brings them all together with its richness. The addition of nutmeg to this dish obscures the quiet, mild flavors of those ingredients meant to shine — unless it is added in the tiniest amounts.
Indian curries make excellent use of nutmeg, because it plays a supporting role. Nutmeg, along with cinnamon, cardamom, allspice and clove — all sweeter spices — are standards in Indian cooking, though they are balanced out with earthy, zesty spices like cumin, coriander, mustard, and fenugreek. There’s a great array of flavor at work so nutmeg simply lends a hand, rather than being the one strong note in an otherwise mild dish. This is key.
Of course the best rule of thumb when cooking for yourself is to taste, taste, and taste again. You may find you like plenty of nutmeg in your own cooking. And I’ll happily make generous use of it when preparing your food, if that’s how you like it. As with all eating, one person’s revulsion is another’s delight.