Most avid home cooks have their favorite time-saving gadgets and more often than not, one of them is a food processor. Somehow, I got my first food processor only a few years ago - after an entire adult lifetime of cooking. I was envious of how fast a friend of mine could whip up perfect pesto in such large quantities for freezing (in ice cube trays!). My gadget of choice had been an immersion blender (great for pureed soups) but it had broken for the third time and I was sick of replacing it. My new kitchen workhorse lasted only two years. Then the plastic container cracked and liquids leaked out when I used it.
I was one of the millions of victims of planned obsolescence and was just too mad to shell out the ridiculous amount of money to replace it. It’s in the basement now and I imagine it’ll be there forevermore. Now what?
For years, my husband would brag that his pestos were superior to mine (they were) because he made his the slow “stone-age way” — with a huge mortar and pestle. We would just have to sit there with our naked pasta until he was quite done with all of that smashing. Now, this massive stone basin was going to be my new food processor and I had to get behind it both figuratively and literally. Actually, this switch fit neatly with a plan to wean our family off of the fossil-fuel-hungry tools of modern life and I have come to understand how every small thing we do makes us braver and more excited for the bigger shifts.
But, there is more than the practical to consider when using a mortar and pestle. So much more.
Pounding garlic and salt, herbs and spices, seeds, nuts, and oils is a full sensory experience — not something a food processor can ever boast with its whiny whir. As the pestle mashes, aromas are released and flavors are compounded to the sound of stone on stone. And, as much as my finger got a workout pressing the button on my old machine, the connection I feel to the food I am making when engaging my arms and hands (and nose), is actually pretty moving.
I might be considered a romantic — I know I am — but when I am making pastes and sauces in my large mortar and pestle, I do feel more connected to the art of cooking and to the many people who have preceded me in the kitchens of the world. And, unlike a food processor, when using a mortar and pestle, that is all you are doing. Your attention is only engaged in doing that one thing - and that one thing is multifaceted. The physical meets creativity as you smell and taste your way through creating something delicious that can elevate even the most simple food.
The following recipe is delicious and versatile. Like the majority of things I make in my pound-o-matic (™), I start this one with garlic and salt. The salt acts as a grit for breaking down the garlic, and from that base, the sky's the limit with nuts, seeds, spices, and herbs. This particular recipe includes our cider syrup - a sweet and tangy pantry staple in this house. Play around with different herbs and spices, replace the cider syrup with lemon juice, or use your favorite nuts or seeds. The process is generally the same but the results will really guide what you are having for dinner tonight!
Garlicky Seed and Spice Paste Recipe
• 2 cloves garlic, peeled
• ¾ teaspoons of sea or kosher salt - any salt, but fine iodized salt should be reduced to a ½ teaspoon
• ½ cup toasted pumpkin seeds (hull-less)
• ½ teaspoon smoked paprika (or favorite dried pepper flake)
• 1 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
• 2 Tablespoons of cider syrup*
• 3 Tablespoons of olive oil (or your favorite healthy oil, such as avocado or sunflower)
• 3-5 Tablespoons of water
Wear an apron. Pound garlic and salt into a paste. Meanwhile, toast the seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until they begin to pop and get a little toasty looking. Give them a shake every 30 seconds or so to avoid scorching.
Add cooled seeds, paprika, cilantro, and cider syrup to the garlic and salt paste. Pound and grind until the consistency is a thick paste. Add the oil and 3 tablespoons of water and gently pound/mix to incorporate and emulsify. Start slowly so as not to splatter the contents all over you and the work surface and grind and stir more vigorously as it comes together.
This gorgeous and rich pesto/paste can be used all week long to make meals more interesting and delicious. These particular flavors really lend themselves to Mexican cooking, so make a quick meal by spreading some on a warm or fried tortilla with cheese and a cabbage slaw! You can mix a spoonful into mayonnaise for a sandwich spread that’ll make you cry, or use that same mixture as a dip for steamed artichokes or roasted potatoes. Add a little more water to make a garnish for vegetable soups or chili, or even stir it into pasta with a handful of shredded cheese. You’ll see what I mean.
Spoon the mixture into a jar and store in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. It’ll keep at least a week.
*Cider syrup (aka boiled cider) is easy to make at home simply by boiling sweet cider until it is reduced into a thick syrup. Of course, we walk you through it in our Ciderhouse Cookbook: 127 Recipes That Celebrate the Sweet, Tart, Tangy Flavors of Apple Cider. You can also buy our cider syrup at Carr’s Ciderhouse.
Jonathan Carr and Nicole Blum co-own Carr’s Ciderhouse, where they produce natural hard cider from sustainably-grown apples and other delicious, traditional cider products. Their goods have been featured by the likes of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Yankee Magazine, Real Simple, Food and Wine, Town and Country, and Cidercraft. They are the authors of Ciderhouse Cookbook (Storey Publishing, 2018). Connect with Jonathan and Nicole on Instagram and Facebook. Read all of their MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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