Ode to Mortars and Pestles

By Lia Huber

I have a thing for mortars and pestles. Part of my fascination, I think, comes from the fact that they’re so utterly primitive. They don’t have a plug. They don’t make motorized noise. They don’t even have a sharp edge. Even the name—mortar and pestle—is simple when traced back to its Latin source: “mortarium” means receptacle for pounding and “pestillum” means pounder.

mortar-pestle-postBut don’t let the simplistic nature fool you into thinking they’re not useful tools. I use mine far more often than my food processor. With just a few whacks and a pinch of salt, garlic and herbs are rendered into a pungent paste; spices are crushed to fragrant bits; simple vegetables are transformed into a surprisingly full-flavored sauce. And you get to let off steam while taking in a little aromatherapy.

Part of what makes mortars and pestles so effective is that pounding ruptures the cells in food, as opposed to slicing or processing which semi-cauterizes them. That’s why one clove of pounded garlic can taste and smell so much more powerful than three cloves of minced.

No wonder nearly every culture has created its own version over the millennia. Each is made of materials abundant in a particular region and fashioned for the culinary needs of a particular cuisine. In France, they tend to be deep bowls made of marble. In Southeast Asia, they’re conical and often made of clay with a wooden mortar. In Latin America, you’ll find giant stone receptacles called molcajetes with a nubbin of a pestle called a tejolete.

It was a quest for the perfect molcajete, in fact, that cemented my infatuation with the tool. My husband and I were on an extended road trip from San Francisco to Costa Rica and had just spent a week in Cuernavaca, Mexico, taking a cooking class. Many modern sauces are now made in blenders, but the dishes that stole the show for me were the ones we pounded in the behemoth basalt molcajetes. The following week, when we paused in Oaxaca for a couple of weeks, I was determined to find the perfect version amidst the city’s sprawling market.

We searched for hours and hours and had almost given up when we turned the corner and spotted it—wide and irregular and pitted and rough. A tiny woman rose to her feet in front of the stall. Her face crinkled into a smile and as we looked each other in the eyes I could see a joy that matched my own. It felt, somehow, like we’d been seeking one another. We made the exchange and shared a hug, and Christopher and I packed up the molcajete for the remainder of the drive. Later, when we pulled the bowl out in our Costa Rica kitchen, I noticed that the bowl had writing around the edge—Recuerdo de Oaxaca, memories of Oaxaca.

I hope that woman knows how rich they are.

Homemade Beef and Bean Burritos

By Cheryl Sternman Rule

Talk about fast food.  This quickie meal uses high quality store-bought ingredients, pantry spices, and fresh veggies to deliver an improved version of a fast-food staple.  Nothing fancy here, but when your schedule is frenzied and you’re considering the drive-thru, consider this 20-minute DIY meal instead.  Decrease the chipotle slightly if you’re serving less adventurous palates.

burrito-beef-beanFor spice mix:

1 tablespoon ancho chile powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon chipotle chile pepper, or less, to taste
3/4 teaspoon salt

For burritos:

1/2 pound organic grass-fed ground beef (85% lean, or leaner)
One 16-ounce can low-fat vegetarian refried beans (“salsa-style,” if available)
1 tablespoon water
Four 8-1/2-inch to 9-inch flour tortillas
1/2 cup shredded Mexican-style cheese blend
1/4 cup light sour cream
2 limes, quartered
3 cups shredded romaine lettuce, from one 8-ounce heart of romaine
1 avocado

Heat a medium skillet over medium high heat for about 3 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare spice mix by combining all spices in a small bowl. Stir to combine.

Add ground beef to skillet and brown, breaking up meat with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 3 minutes. Add the refried beans, water, and spice mix, lower heat slightly, and cook until flavors meld, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Turn off heat, and cover skillet.

Heat each tortilla directly over the burner of a medium gas flame, turning two or three times with tongs, until puffed, speckled and pliable, about 45 seconds. (Alternatively, heat in a dry pan on an electric stove.) Repeat with remaining tortillas. Lay tortillas on a cutting board.

Place 1/2 cup beef and bean mixture, 2 tablespoons cheese, 1 tablespoon sour cream, and a generous squeeze of lime down the center of each tortilla. Fold in the edges and roll up, burrito-style. Place seam side down on a plate. Repeat with remaining burritos.

Serve burritos with plates of shredded lettuce and mashed avocado, both spritzed with lime.

Serves 4