Depending on your frame of reference, it’s either an old school kitchen device used for crushing
spices or the outdated symbol of a profession that provides medication, perhaps to soothe the
irritated stomach that consumed too many of those spices. In my case, it symbolizes both since
pharmacy provides the means for sustenance while cooking feeds the body and soul. Of course,
this symbolic device is the mortar and pestle which is as rudimentary as they come; a bowl to
contain something to pound and a pounding device. They can be as rustic as the Mexican stone
mocajete used to mash avocado for a chunky guacamole or the sleek marble or granite versions
sold in most gourmet kitchen stores or the polished wooden versions used to mash fried
plantains, chicharrones and garlic for that Puerto Rican comfort food, mofongo. Even the
Japanese have their own version albeit supersized version also known as the usu and kine which
requires two people to operate and is solely used for mochi pounding.
Of course, I won’t bore you with a column devoted just to a simple kitchen device but rather
highlight what that device potentially can create. While Wolf ranges and All-Clad pots and pans
are desirable, the food produced from them is the ultimate goal. However if kitchen implements
still excite you more than the food they produce, I suggest you seek professional help.
The Mortar and Pestle
The early Romans consumed a cheese based spread called Moretum which took its name from
the bowl used to crush ingredients or the mortar. Flavorings such as fresh herbs, salt, oils and
vinegars were often added to the mix and eventually in Provence, France and Liguria, Italy, basil
became the predominant fresh herb used in the blend and the name of this spread eventually
reflected the pounding half of the pair, the pestle or pesto in Italy and pistou in France.
I’m sure all of you have tried that heavenly blend of fresh basil, fresh garlic, toasted pine nuts,
Parmigiano Reggiano or Romano cheese, salt, black pepper and extra virgin olive oil. What!? You
don’t care for the traditional basil pesto because you don’t care for that strong almost licorice
like sweetness of fresh basil? Or you’re not a fan of raw garlic? Or perhaps you can’t find pine
nuts or what you can find reeks of oil based paint? Well don’t fret. There are NO hard and fast
culinary rules. What you like and dislike are what makes cooking from YOUR heart. Don’t like
garlic? Leave it out. Love cilantro? Add it with reckless abandon. Remember that the name pesto
comes from pestle, the pounding device used to create it and not from the individual ingredients
that comprise YOUR own pesto.
For starters, pesto is made with fresh ingredients. You can’t make a pesto with dried herbs or
garlic powder. I know that in the States, fresh produce is seasonal and that perfectly ripe basil
leaves may not be available year round (life is not all peaches and cream in the Tropics as insects
also grow year round to consume said crops). However, when you can procure fresh basil the
basic recipe goes something like this. Enough fresh basil leaves to fill a 7 cup food processor.
One to 3 cloves of fresh garlic roughly chopped. One quarter cup of toasted pine nuts. Salt and
freshly ground black pepper to taste. For my personal preference, cheese is optional (it’s also
optional with the French pistou). Mainly because I try to consume healthier food options on a
daily basis. If my basil pesto is for weekly use in my lunchtime sandwiches, I’ll skip the cheese
because it does contain its fair share of saturated fat. If my basil pesto will be used in a dinner
party for friends, I’ll add the Parmigiano Reggiano for flavor (remember that Parmigiano
contains umami or the 5th flavor sensation) since my dinner parties don’t occur on a daily basis.
Lastly add extra virgin oil to desired consistency – I make a thicker pesto for daily use since there’
s no cheese and it blends perfectly with reduced fat mayonnaise. Finally add 2 to 3 grams of
crushed Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) to help preserve the vibrant green color of the pesto ( a
Michael Chiarello tip). This basic basil pesto can be tossed as is with cooked spaghetti, linguine
or capellini for a simple taste of Genoa. Or simmer 2 cans or chopped clams with their liquid, 1
tablespoon of fresh lemon juice and a dash of dry white wine and the zest of ½ lemon with ¼
cup of basil pesto. Toss with freshly cooked capellini or thin spaghetti and serve with a glass of
Pinot Grigio for the perfect clam pesto pasta. Finally, add 1 part basil pesto to 2 parts of reduced
fat mayonnaise for the perfect basil scented sandwich spread. A low fat alternative to plain
mustard or ketchup for your weekly brown bag weekday lunches – reduce fat mayonnaise
dressings also help to soften ciabatta or French bread that has naturally hardened during the
course of the week.
Anyone that knows the Gochiso Gourmet knows that I love… no, make that reveres fresh
cilantro. And it didn’t always start out as a love relationship. I previously felt (and tasted) that
fresh cilantro was akin to stink bugs… not that I consumed stink bugs on a regular basis. But I
avoided fresh cilantro like the plague. But as Iron Chef Bobby Flay has stated time and time
again, if you don’t like cilantro try it again. My personal fresh cilantro epiphany came while in
school in San Francisco. I had a mega burrito from Gordo’s and their fresh salsa also contained
fresh cilantro. What previously was a total food aversion is now a food addiction. I now flavor
my cilantro with food. And hopefully this fresh cilantro pesto converts you like it did to me.
Those who know me know that I’m not for precise measuring. I treat your prescriptions the
same (just KIDDING)! Since fresh herbs are difficult to precisely measure (other than using a
kitchen scale which I don’t possess), the measurements are based on using a 7 cup food processor.
About two large bunches of fresh cilantro (leaves and stems), roughly torn
1 to 3 cloves fresh garlic
¼ cup toasted macadamia nuts
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 to 3 gm crushed Vitamin C
Extra virgin olive oil (1/4 to ½ cup)
Hot sauce (optional)
Fill a 7 cup food processor with torn fresh cilantro. Add garlic, macadamia nut, salt/pepper and
Vitamin C (and hot sauce) in food processor and pulse until a rough paste forms. Scrape down
the sides then set food processor on run and slowly add olive oil until desired consistency
attained. Makes about 1 to 1 & ½ cups. Refrigerate until used.
Use the cilantro pesto in place of basil pesto for an Asian twist. Or for a fast summertime recipe,
the Mrs. tosses cook whole grain thin pasta (we love Barilla Plus Angel Hair) with equal parts of
cilantro pesto and sweet chili sauce (found in the Asian section of most markets) with cooked
shrimp or scallops. Served warm or cold with a glass of off dry Riesling or Gewurztraminer for the
perfect hot weather summer dish
Ginger Green Onion Pesto
One large hand of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2 bunches of fresh green onion, roughly chopped
Salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste
¼ to ½ cup canola oil
Add first 3 ingredients to a 7 cup food processor and run until a paste forms (scraping down the
processor) then add canola oil until desired consistency in obtained.
This pesto was inspired by the traditional Cold Ginger Chicken sauce used in most Chinese
restaurants. It can be used with steamed white fleshed fish in the traditional manner with hot oil
or mixed with reduced fat mayonnaise and julienned green/red cabbage and shredded carrots for
an Asian slaw to be added to Asian spiced sliced pork loin or tenderloin for the perfect
The New “Pestle”
Since modern technology has afforded us the luxury of electric powered devices, we should take
full advantage of the wonders that it allows. While the Old School mortar and pestle does have
its place in our culinary creations (grind individual Indian spices for starters), the food processor
does allow us to expand the usual repertoire of traditional recipes to the fullest. Explore at will.
All you need is a little fresh herbs, a touch of spices and some oil and you too can create your
own memorable edible “pestle”.
Humble beginnings from a Mortar and Pestle