My favorite kitchen tool is a stone mortar and pestle. It sits proudly on my kitchen counter, holding its own in a caveman-esque sort of way, flaunting its primal elegance in between the commercial stove and espresso machine. It’s smugly confident in its weight and kitchen hierarchy (deemed decorative) while my food processor and standing mixer are banished behind cabinet doors (deemed clutter.) New kitchen techniques are awe-inspiring and futuristic, yet my mortar is old and wise with a lineage extending as far back as the Old Testament. Evaporators, anti-griddles, gastro-vacs may be cutting edge, favored by professional chefs and avant-garde molecular gastronomy experts, but my mortar has a stellar history as an essential tool to Native Americans, ancient Romans and Greeks, medieval pharmacists and home cooks spanning the ages from the dawn of civilization. It is the embodiment of simplicity and timelessness, pleasingly tactile and massively elemental. And it’s affordable.
What can you do with a mortar and pestle? You can grind, pound and smash to your heart’s content, making pestos, pastes, sauces, dips, dressings and marinades. You can grind seeds into powder. (I assure you the results of lightly toasting cardamon, cumin or coriander seeds and then grinding them to a fine powder in a mortar will yield results unparalleled by the pre-ground versions.) The mortar is also the perfect place to smash garlic with sea salt, adding fresh cut herbs such as rosemary, thyme, sage, basil, mint. Crush the garlic first with the salt, then add the herbs and bruise them by giving them a few turns with the pestle to release their juices and flavor. You will be left with a powerful, aromatic paste you can smear on meats and poultry before roasting.
You can also create a complete dish and serve it in the mortar. Try making guacamole. Serve with chips, and you have one-stop-shopping in a primitive vessel.
If you don’t have a mortar, then simply combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and mash with a fork to achieve a chunky consistency. Makes about 2 cups.
1 red or green jalapeño pepper, stemmed and seeded, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
3 large ripe hass avocados
1/4 cup coarsely grated yellow onion with juice
Juice of one lime
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco
Combine the jalapeño, garlic, and red onion in a mortar. Press on the ingredients with your pestle, and grind them around the mortar in a circular movement, 3 to 4 times. Add the cilantro and gently bruise the leaves with the pestle. Add the avocados, yellow onion, and lime juice and mash to form a blended but chunky consistency. Stir in the cumin, salt, black pepper, and hot sauce and taste for seasoning.