Friday, April 14, 2006

ancient nutmeg: circa 1985

I thought I knew nutmeg, but it turns out it's a racier and more elusive spice than I'd guessed. For instance, it was prized as an aphrodisiac by Chinese women. Scientists have found that it increases mating activity in mice. In large quantities, nutmeg can have a hallucinatory effect. The nut of a fruit, it grows on a tree fifteen feet high (Myristica fragrans). It originated in the Eastern Moluccas.
This arouses so many questions: which Chinese women, and when, and why not Chinese men? How did the scientists serve the nutmeg? Sprinkled on mice-sized custards? How large is the hallucinogenic dose? What does the nutmeg fruit look like? (see left)
Where are the Eastern Moluccas? (I've always been weak in geography.)
Not all of these questions are easily answerable, but I did find an interesting story (first published in a 1970 issue of British Medical Journal) about a young woman who ate "one ounce of nutmeg in water and orange juice." The nutmeg made her feel nauseous and see black creatures and red eyes, but even so, "her mood was one of elation." After being taken to the emergency room, "she was admitted and quickly fell into a sound sleep." Ah, the sixties.
(And I now know that the Eastern Moluccas are in Indonesia.)
I chose nutmeg as my spice of choice for my entry in Tigers and Strawberries new blogging event, The Spice is Right. My nutmeg qualifies as ancient on account of its long tenure in my household. D and I bought a jar of nutmegs sometime between 1983 and 1986, which is still with us, and still quite spicy. I got curious about the nutmegs' staying power when I started working on this and I bought several new nutmegs from the West Side Market. How would the 20 year old nutmegs stand up to fresh-bought? I grated a bit from both and taste-tested. The newer ones were maybe a mite more pungent, but not really so much. My nutmegs have stood the test of time.
I used one of the venerable '80s nutmegs (there are still 5 left) for the following dish, and it performed like a champ.

Spinach-Potato Soup
1 onion, chopped
1 tsp ginger-garlic paste (the kind you can find in Indian groceries)
or, 1 clove garlic, chopped, and 1 quarter-size slice of ginger, chopped
1 tbs olive oil
2 cups chicken broth
3 small potatoes, peeled and diced
1 cup raw spinach, roughly chopped
1 cup skim milk
1 tbs lime juice
large pinch of nutmeg (about a 1/2 tsp)
Salt and pepper to taste

I sauteed the onion in the oil, added the garlic ginger paste when the onions were translucent. Then in with the broth and the potatoes, and about 10 minutes of simmering (since the potatoes were cut quite small). I added the spinach, simmered about 5 minutes more, then the milk, lime juice and nutmeg. I left it on a little longer, just to warm it up after the milk chill, and then brought out my beloved immersion blender. I only blended it a bit, just to break things up a little, but not so much that it was uniform, and then salted and peppered it lightly.
A very straightforward and simple soup, which could easily be made vegetarian with vegetable broth instead of chicken. When I went at it with the immersion blender, it worked up quite a froth, which was a little unsettling, too milkshake-like. But this settled down after a while.
I got the original recipe from a British recipe site, recipes4us, but I changed it enough that I think I can claim it as mine. It was pretty good, a lovely greenish color, tasting both like spring and winter, a nice segue into a new season, good both immediately and as leftovers the next day.
Dutch explorers brought the first nutmegs to Europe around 1608 and they were so popular that the Dutch invaded and conquered the islands so they could be the kings of nutmeg--which makes me historically regretful, but no less appreciative of its charm.


holly_44109 said...

great post...what an interesting spice!

lucette said...

Thanks--your chili for the cookoff looked great, by the way. Are you eating some of your homemade kielbasi for Easter? Which reminds me, I should go to the Sausage Shoppe.

karina said...

I love fresh grated nutmeg in all kinds of recipes - it's often my "secret ingredient".

Maureen McHugh said...

I'm just curious as to how the Chinese women used nutmeg. I can imagine making, I dunno, creamed spinach, and sending hordes of people into paroxysms of lust, like a scene out of Like Water For Chocolate. Or maybe you have to stir fry. Or even put it in dumplings.

Did you notice any effect from the soup?

Think of how this could liven up a dinner party.

lucette said...

Dumpling has a very sexy sound, don't you think?

Jasmine said...

This looks really good-- great choice to highlight nutmeg :)