My favorite kitchen tool is my 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 stove and the 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. Sous-vides, anti-griddles and smart ovens may be cutting-edge, favored by professional chefs and gastronomy buffs, 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 that lightly toasting cardamom, 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 and 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 this guacamole, a perfect crowd-pleaser, just in time for your Super Bowl party. 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.
Active Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
Yield: Makes about 2 cups
1 small red or green jalapeno pepper, stemmed and seeded, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, plus extra chopped leaves for garnish
3 to 4 large ripe Hass avocados, peeled
2 tablespoons coarsely grated yellow onion with juice
Juice of one lime
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 to 3 dashes hot sauce, such as Tabasco (optional)
Combine the jalapeno, 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. Mix in the cumin, salt, black pepper and hot sauce, if using, and taste for seasoning. Serve garnished with additional chopped cilantro.
Lynda Balslev is a cookbook author, food and travel writer, and recipe developer based in the San Francisco Bay area, where she lives with her Danish husband, two children, a cat and a dog. She studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu Ecole de Cuisine in Paris and worked as a personal chef, culinary instructor, and food writer in Switzerland and Denmark. Her favorite activities include hiking, cooking dinners for her friends and family, and planning her next travel destination.