Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sustainable Tool: Mortar and Pestle

A few years ago, Hurricane Ike barreled up from the Gulf and continued north until it hit Ohio as a Category 1 Hurricane.  Most of you probably laugh at the idea of a category one storm being memorable, but let me assure you that a mostly-landlocked Midwestern state has done very little hurricane preparedness work.  We were left without power for nearly a week, and that event kicked off my interest in finding tools that can be used off the grid.

One of my favorite such tools, although it wouldn't have done much in a temporary power outage like Ike caused, is the mortar and pestle.  You may recognize the iconic shape from apothecary signs at your local pharmacy, and that is no accident.  A mortar and pestle is the original grinding tool.  It can be used to grind and compound (mix) medications, hence the link with pharmacies, but it has traditionally been used to grind herbs and spices and crack grains and nuts.  I use mine several times a week during food preservation season for just these tasks.

I can't tell you the pleasure that this tool brings me.  It allows me to quickly and easily grind, powder, and crush herbs, seeds, and herbal medications in a way that has been done for millennia.  Think of that -- you are doing a task that someone could have done before electricity, before the railroad, even before writing.  This tool is so basic, just picking one up links you with history.  (That kind of gives me a little chill, but I am a history nerd that way.)

It also does the job well.  I recommend you buy one made of stone; mine is marble, but there are granite ones available.  Get one with a smooth interior, although it doesn't have to be polished.  Place a little of what you are grinding inside, then take the pestle (which I just learned derives from the Latin for "pounder") and start by pressing against your substance, then working up to something slightly more intense than tapping.  You don't want to imitate the Flintstones and pick the pestle up and slam it against the mortar. 

Also, with a mortar and pestle, you can forget about the conventional foodie recommendation to buy a separate coffee grinder and use it just for grinding spices, so the spice flavor doesn't contaminate the coffee.  With a stone mortar and pestle, you can grind any flavorful substance and then wipe it clean with no flavor residue.  You may want to use a drop or two of dish washing liquid if you just worked with hot peppers, but otherwise you can clean your mortar and pestle with water and a clean towel.

I have a possibly unreasonable love for this tool.  With proper care, it will be with me for a lifetime.  Maybe in a millennium, someone else will think of me while they preserve their food using a mortar and pestle.

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