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Pounding out the flavor Using a mortar and pestle in today's cooking pays off in nuance

When my palate is needy, there's a pesto I love to make: a rough-textured, smoky-tasting blend of toasted pumpkin seed, garlic, olive oil and cayenne pepper. It's drier than traditional herb pestos, yet it holds a moist crumb. Its irregularity -- creamy and a little grainy, in a good way -- is addictive.

But the mixture is dry enough that labeling it as a pesto seems a little misleading, unless you're already familiar with the etymology. Pesto translates, more or less, into "pounded," from the Italian pestare, "to pound," and it calls to mind the traditional means of making that fragrant Ligurian sauce of basil, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil: a mortar and pestle, which shares the same linguistic roots.

Less easy to grasp is why the mortar and pestle is a stranger to so many modern home kitchens.

Pesto is good enough reason to own one. But so are the ancient tool's simplicity and its easy way with basic tasks such as pounding garlic or ginger into a paste, crushing freshly toasted spices and grinding coarse salt.

"With spices, it makes such a difference if you use them fresh, and very often you need just a teaspoon of something," says Indian cooking authority Madhur Jaffrey.

But the mortar and pestle is not a romantic tool. It may be a relic of culinary oldways, but the best reasons for using one today are practical at their core, and it all comes around to taste. Pestos and other herb sauces, notably, are more vivid and hold their color longer when made in a mortar and pestle.

The trouble with food-processor blades is that they do both violent and careless work; they chop, slice and shred, as opposed to the (gentler, really) crushing, pulverizing actions of the pestle. When you use a mortar and pestle, you work more fully, and with greater control, to release the ingredients' oils and incorporate them, marrying their flavors.

A machine "doesn't give you the same crush, the same crumb, the same powder," says cookbook author Paula Wolfert, whose "Food of Morocco" was published last fall. "It doesn't look the same, it doesn't feel the same in your mouth. And people who know, they know."

How well you match your mortar and pestle to your needs will encourage you to reach for it daily or swear off the little bit of elbow grease it requires indefinitely. Don't try, for instance, to make a walnut sauce in a slick-surfaced marble mortar with a deep, narrow bowl. It will work, eventually, but will also do little to persuade you of its indispensability, and the walnuts will fight with you, besides. Better would be a large granite mortar whose surface, faintly rough to the touch, provides enough grip to keep nuts from flying and room to work the pestle without crowding.

In general, if you're going to be grinding moderate amounts of anything, look for mortars that hold at least two cups' worth, with bowls not overly shallow, deep or steep-sided. Surfaces with a little roughness, such as granite or some earthenware, will make your job a little easier than overly smooth ones such as marble or wood.

Other tricks to consider: A pinch of salt added to what you're grinding will speed the process, easing garlic cloves into a paste and toasted cumin seed into a powder. It also helps to remember that your technique should depend on what kinds of ingredients you're working with: Garlic, ginger, spices and otherwise fibrous ingredients respond well to deliberate, vigorous pounding, but processing herbs to a paste asks for a little more finesse, moving the pestle in a downward-pressing circular motion to grind the herbs and lightly pound them simultaneously. No matter the material or the ingredients, using the mortar and pestle correctly, with focus and even some rhythm, should feel less like an exercise in aggression and more like culinary therapy.

This rustic paste is nice strewn over a platter of roasted beets or as a spread for flatbread or folded into soups or pasta dishes.


1/2 cup raw shelled pumpkin seeds

2 cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste

Heat a large, heavy skillet over low-to-medium heat. Add the pumpkin seeds and cook, tossing them occasionally, until the seeds are fragrant and slightly puffed, 5 to 7 minutes.

Meanwhile, use a large mortar and pestle to crush the garlic and salt into a paste. Add the pumpkin seeds and grind the mixture into a coarse powder. Add the oil; use the pestle to incorporate the oil until well blended. Add the cayenne pepper and stir to incorporate. The pesto should be moist but crumbly. Makes 10 tablespoons.

Use the pesto immediately; or store it, covered and refrigerated, for up to 1 week.

Per tablespoon: 60 calories, 2g protein, 1g carbohydrates, 5g fat, 1g saturated fat, 120mg sodium, no cholesterol, fiber or sugar.