Mortar and pestle. I knew it was coming when I needed crushed fennel seed a few weeks ago for fennel baked in milk (Finnochio con Latte al Forno.) How did our grandmothers crush nuts, garlic, basil, olives, red pepper, herbs and seeds? I improvised. But this awesomely yummy recipe for Pasta Puttanesca from The Pioneer Woman Cooks sealed the deal.
Little did I know what an adventure acquiring a mortar and pestle would be.
First, what kind?
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors relied on makeshift mortars and pestles (typically a tree stump or rock paired with a flat stone) to make meal and flour from previously indigestible grains.
The molcajete, a version used by pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican cultures including the Aztec and Maya, stretching back several thousand years, is made of basalt and is used widely in Mexican cooking. These are often carved into fanciful shapes of pigs and other animals, often passed from one generation to the next as a precious heirloom.
This likely evolved from the more primitive metate grinding slab. Other Native American tribes used mortars carved into the bedrock to grind acorns and other nuts. Many such depressions can be found in their former territories.
In Japan, earthenware mortars and pestles are called suribachi (the mortar) and surikogi (the pestle). Cooks in Southeast Asia and India prefer granite mortars and pestles. Traditional Mexican versions, known as molcajetes, are made of basalt. Western cooks often favor marble; it’s hard, smooth, hefty and relatively non-porous.
Olive wood makes a beautiful pesto along with an impressive presentation, but the wood will dry and crack in time. You can find a mortar and pestle crafted of bamboo, stoneware, ceramic, porcelain, iron, stainless steel and other materials, each with pluses and minuses in control and ease of the grind.
Next, what size?
Form follows function. In other words, what do you want to use it for?
The Mexican mortar and pestle — molcajete being the mortar, tejolote the pestle is typically made of basalt (volcanic rock). These rough-hewn vessels are geared for heavy duty grindage - salsas and mole's (mohl-LAY), as well as guacamole. It is also used for grinding chilies, garlic or other herbs and spices for food preparation.
The Thai mortar and pestle, used for centuries in making rich, spicy curry pastes, has been recently popularized by TV chef, Jamie Oliver. The smooth, non-porous interior makes a good grinding surface and is easy to clean as well. Sizes vary from 6 to 9 inches, with the largest vessels being quite heavy (thus stable.)
Smaller sized mortar and pestle - bowls from to 3 to 5 inches - can be used to pulverize garlic, herbs, dried peppers and seeds for specialized spice blends or to prepare herbal medicine.
If the variety in materials, form and function weren't enough to make a perfectionist crazy, there was the preparation before using it.
What do you mean I have to season my mortar and pestle before using it? Did I mention instant gratification?
Some of my favorite food writers like the Homesick Texan have hilarious stories about this tricky step. I'm impressed. But sisters, there was just no way I was going to work at this for a week before having this sassy, southern Italian sauce.
Plus after an evening researching options, I could foresee having more than one of these handy, albeit old-fashioned gadgets in my kitchen.
Bottom line, crushing garlic, bruising herb leaves and pulverizing tiny grains releases oils - and flavors - that your mini-food processor simply can't produce. What's more, the food processor creates heat that causes some herbs to oxidize. Quickly processing them by hand in a mortar and pestle keeps them a fresh green and adds more texture to the dishes you prepare with it.
Suffice to say, this is not a toy ... er ... kitchen tool for people who have need for immediate gratification. What's more, using it is work! After all, it's what our fore-mothers used instead of a food processor.
But oh the joy of a perfect puttanesca sauce - whore's sauce. It has become my new favorite!
It's the perfect supper when you've worked all day without the time to slow cook a Bolognese sauce and have just enough energy to throw a few ingredients in a pan - this season's garlic, onion, last summer's oven-roasted tomatoes, anchovies, pitted olives, red wine and pasta, of course.