Plugged in to my Pestle

Posted by    |  March 10, 2010  |  Filed under: Equipment

I have lots of tools I love.  My Bob Kramer chef’s knife- affectionately named “Mike” for reasons I’ll explain later-  is like an extension of my right hand when I’m prepping.  When I’m making hot chocolate, whipping up a little cream, or blending an elixir to pour into a martini glass, my Bamix immersion blender gets its daily workout.

No tool holds me under its spell like my mortar and pestle.  Though I’m not a romantic girl, I have a silly, girlish passion for this stone bowl and stick.  This isn’t an infatuation- it’s the real thing because this love has grown and deepened the more I’ve used it.  I’ll get to the practical ways that I use it in a moment, but indulge my little rhapsody a little longer.

In an age when so many tools use electricity to power them, it is a wonderful thing to feel my own strength do the work.  The pop of peppercorns as they crack is transmitted up my arm as their bouquet tickles my nose.  As I grind my coffee beans, I can watch as each stroke of the pestle incrementally increases the fineness of the grind.  I am totally in control.  I am so physically connected to those ingredients in that moment.

Oh geez.  Should I light a cigarette now?

Okay my practical friends, here’s why you might love a mortar and pestle as well.

It’s the perfect little spice grinder. The flavors of spices are contained in their oils.  When whole, the oils are well protected.   As soon as the berry, seed, bark, or root that contains the oils is ground, the oils are exposed to air, which oxidizes them- diminishing their flavor qualities.  This is why I’m a big advocate of keeping only whole spices and grinding them as needed.

Many cooks use a simple coffee grinder dedicated for this purpose.  I hate having to take that thing out, plug it in and then clean it.  Give me my simple little mortar any day.  Its small and pretty enough to sit out on my counter and just wipes clean in a second.  I can also get my grind just as fine or coarse as I like- an important factor when I’m grinding peppercorns for Steak au Poivre.

It is an outstanding coffee grinder. Oh, go ahead and laugh.  There’s a story here, though.  One Saturday, my super-expensive burr-style coffee grinder ground to a halt.  Desperate for my morning cup o’ joe, I started to think about what else I might do to grind my beans.  Since coffee beans are like big seeds, why wouldn’t the mortar and pestle work?  I tried it.  Amazing.  The flavor was brighter and cleaner when ground this way- it was a bit like I could taste all the other flavor notes so much more clearly.

Second, it produced almost no sediment.  I brew coffee in a French press.  I’d always had to tolerate a yucky sediment in the bottom of the cup that muddied the flavor of the cup over time and made the last sip undrinkable.  Alas, as the grind was more consistent, there was no powdery stuff to spill into my cup.

It takes me about 45-60 seconds to grind my own coffee, but my kids love to do it so they usually take turns doing most of the job.  I eventually bought a second, larger mortar and pestle for the job.

Its super cheap! My second marble mortar and pestle set me back $25.  The green granite one I’ve had for years retails for $12.99.  You don’t even need to worry about the warranty!

In age of automation, it may seem like silly nostalgia to do anything by hand.  My passion for my mortar and pestle sets comes from their perfect marriage of practicality and pleasure.  Sometimes the old -fashioned way is still the nicest way.

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