Yeah, OK – I got a lot of herbs and spices on hand here at the Urban kitchen – maybe too much, even considering all the developing work I do. Since the Lunar New Year is fast approaching, I started pulling stuff down, making keep or trash decisions, and performing a thorough cleaning before Zao Jin, the Kitchen God, heads back up to heaven with his kitchen report to the Jade Emperor – Never screw with the Kitchen God, folks.
I got to the top shelf left, which is, mas o menos, sweeter stuff. Everything from several different varieties of vanilla bean and cinnamons, to clove, powdered citrus, honey, molasses, agave nectar, and finally, allspice, whole nutmegs, and mace – and those last ones got me wormholin’ a bit.
Why these three spices? ‘Cause I think they’re under appreciated for their savory powers and maybe not as well understood as they might be – so let’s have a gander.
Mace and nutmeg both come from Myristica fragrans, a tree native to Indonesia. The two spices literally grow intertwined – Mace is the bright red aril, the ropy outer layer that surrounds each nutmeg seed. The fleshy peach-colored fruit is made into jam and candy, and the rind gets used for local dishes and nutmeg juice.
Mace, good mace, has that bright red color when it’s fresh. Peeled off the nutmeg, it dries to a yellowish, rather brittle leather which then makes for a very nice powdered spice. You can buy mace wrapped around a nutmeg, or whole dried – the latter is a great way to keep it, as it’ll last a lot longer and provide a cleaner, more distinct taste profile. Mace has the same nutty, peppery notes as nutmeg, but is subtler.
Whole nutmegs are gorgeous – They’re hard, and grate wonderfully into the pungent powder we know and love. Buy fresh whole nutmeg when you need to reload – while the powdered spice will degrade quite quickly, whole nutmegs are good for 2-3 years, and will give you much richer flavor. Nutmeg has a warm, nutty, peppery profile with a lot of potency.
Allspice is a berry from the Pimenta dioica tree, a shrubby evergreen native to the West Indies – they’re grown across many warm climes these days. The berries are picked green and sun dried, finished, they look like large peppercorns. Biy allspice as whole berries and grind what you need fresh – that’ll give you much bolder flavor and longer storage life.
Allspice, especially good, fresh stuff, has an amazing depth and breadth to it – it smells and tastes like a blend of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and pepper, and is simply fantastic – like Mace and nutmeg, it is great for so much more than sweet stuff, too.
Allspice is the heartbeat of Jamaican jerk seasoning, the scotch bonnet chile fueled spice rub that lights up poultry, fish, and veggies.
Mace is used widely in regional Indian cooking, especially in Mughai cuisine. Quite a few masalas (spice blends) feature it.
Nutmeg makes its way into savory dishes as a je ne sais quoi – a subtle hint of something more – from Mac and cheese to soups and stews, it’s fantastic.
All three of these spices will shine in spice rubs for proteins and veggies. They’re best as warm, minor notes that add a subtle bass note to the stronger headliners like salt, sugar, and pepper. Like Chinese Five Spice blend? Any of these could be one of the five, or added to, and would absolutely shine.
You really can’t go wrong deploying them that way. So dive in and have some fun.