Much as I want one, a speedy Vitamix blender isn’t in the budget right now. So lately, when I need to pulverize something in the kitchen, I’ve been going old-school. I’ve been using an old-fashioned mortar and pestle.
The mortar (the little bowl, sometimes balanced on short legs) and the pestle (a little stick rounded on one end) are old, old tools. You use them to smash, grind or pulverize ingredients, especially spices and herbs.
Cooks have relied on them for centuries, and most cultures have their own version. In Mexico, for instance, they are called molcajetes, and cooks use them to prepare dishes like guacamole or to grind the spices for mole.
I was probably like a lot of people, and originally bought my mortar-and-pestle set mostly as decoration. Most sets are made of marble, porcelain or polished wood, and they look nice in a kitchen or dining area. Spoiled by conveniences, I used a blender or an electric spice grinder when I needed to smash something quickly.
But once I actually tried using the thing, I liked it. There’s something very satisfying about crushing your own spices for your pesto or curry by hand.
When you grind spices and herbs using a mortar and pestle, it breaks down the oils slowly and gradually, releasing the natural flavors and aromas more fully than you get by a mechanical process. It’s also easier to grind spices to just the texture you want; when I throw herbs into my food processor, it’s too easy to turn them into dust or mush. And, honestly, unless you’re making pesto for 200, it just doesn’t take that much longer to do it by hand.
Pesto, in fact, is one of those things that just seems to taste better if you make in a mortar and pestle. Here’s an easy version that doesn’t make too much:
Mortar and Pestle Pesto
Two generous handfuls fresh basil leaves
3 to 4 cloves fresh garlic
1/3 cup pine nuts or walnuts
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan or grana padano cheese
1/4 to 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Peel garlic and cut each clove in half. Wash basil and remove stems; place in a dry paper towel and squeeze gently to remove water.
Place basil, garlic cloves, nuts, and a dash of salt and pepper in the mortar. Use pestle to grind this mixture into a rough paste. Add cheese; use pestle again to thoroughly grind in cheese.
When the basil mixture is fairly smooth, but still a little chunky, transfer to a medium-size mixing bowl. Slowly whisk in the oil, a little at a time, until you have the consistency you want. (Use less oil if you want to serve it as a dip or bread spread; use more if you want to serve it with pasta.) Finally, add more salt and pepper to taste.