I bought a mortar and pestle today, a kitchen tool I’ve done without for thirty-five years. As I have a general policy of not buying things, why did I make an exception for this?
The answer lies, and hangs, in my basement: a rack and two elevated screens of drying herbs, the last harvest before winter. Rosemary and sage, oregano, parsley and chives: some hang in bunches from the rack that used to, in my working days, dry my panty-hose; more are spread on window screens elevated on paint cans. (None of them are catnip, to Pye’s total disgust – she loves it. Pyxel, on the other hand, watches Pye go ecstatic over a catnip toy the way a teetotaler watches someone enjoying a glass of wine.)
I could have chopped the herbs and stored them frozen in oil; or just frozen, in small bags, but I prefer dried herbs for the simple reason I don’t have to remember to thaw them prior to cooking. (I do freeze pesto.) I could have microwaved or oven-dried them, but why use energy when the basement is dry and warm? In another few days, I’ll bring them up to the kitchen, and strip the leaves off the stems prior to storing in glass jars. Some of them – the rosemary in particular – I will later grind.
Ground rosemary used to be easy to find in grocery stores, but for a long time now all I can find are whole leaves – which are fine, and I use them, but sometimes I want ground rosemary, when the texture of what I’m making will not benefit from the whole leaf. There are a few other herbs that can benefit from grinding, sometimes: dill for use in sauces or on fish comes to mind. And spices – well, Indian spices like mustard seeds need grinding just before they are added to a curry; powdered mustard seed lacks the fragrance and bite of freshly-ground. These were all good reasons to buy a mortar and pestle years ago, but for some reason I never got around to it. (You can bash mustard seed with a rolling pin, in a pinch.)
But I am also thinking ahead. The community in which I live has a communal herb garden, and I’ve volunteered to be one of the people who takes care of it. It satisfies my wish to garden without committing me to something too big or too demanding of my time. Next year we’ll have quite a wide variety of herbs, edible flowers, and perhaps a few other plants like jalapeno peppers. With a larger variety of herbs to cook with and to dry, I will (I hope) need the mortar and pestle more than ever before.
But I’m curious…those of you who use a mortar and pestle regularly, what other kitchen uses does it have?