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It sounds like something a builder would use, but a mortar and pestle is one of the most important pieces of equipment a home cook can own.

The mortar and pestle began as two pieces of stone that were used for grinding grain. The mortar was a flat stone with a depression in the middle, and the pestle was a smaller stone used to grind. This method is still used in many parts of the world.

When you buy a mortar and pestle today it is offered in a variety of materials; stone or marble is still the best. The material to be ground is placed in the bowl (which has replaced the flat rock), and the pestle is used with a rolling or pounding motion to break it up into fine grains. It takes some physical effort, but it is great exercise for your upper arms.

These tools are easy to use, and once you get the hang of it, you will find daily uses for it, including crushing garlic, cracking pepper, mixing rubs and seasonings of all kinds. It’s all in the wrist action!

Here are a few recipes for you to try:

Herbal Salt

You can make small amounts of herbal salt to use quickly and easily. If you have a flourishing herb garden, you can create mixtures for your pantry and preserve your herbs. This recipe works well for any green herbs, such as thyme, parsley, dill or mint.

Ingredients:

dried herbs of any variety
good coarse sea salt.

Use dried herbs; if you have fresh, dry them in a microwave for two to three minutes (extra if they are still moist). Put 2 tablespoons of sea salt into the mortar bowl and crumble in the same amount of dried herb. You can use one herb or a combination, such as lemon balm and thyme (which is wonderful for salads and fish).

Using the pestle, crush the herbs and salt together. Don’t rush this, you want a well-blended aromatic mixture. Put the herbal salt in a tightly lidded jar or salt shaker, label and use with salads, barbecues and soups.

Garlic and Rosemary Rub for Roasts

This rub goes well with lamb.

Ingredients:

2 large cloves of garlic
½ teaspoon dried rosemary
2 teaspoons virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt

Place the garlic in the mortar and pound with the pestle until the garlic is broken up. Add the rosemary and sea salt and grind with the garlic. Add the olive oil and mix well. Make slits in the surface of the meat and rub well in, covering the skin and pushing into the slits before roasting.

Lemongrass and Lemon Balm Tea

This lemony tea is soothing and calming.

Ingredients:

1 cup dried lemon balm leaves
four, 7″ to 9″ sticks of lemongrass (available from Asian grocery stores)

Chop the lemongrass into small pieces and smash with the mortar and pestle to release the aromatic oils. Add the lemon balm and work the two together until the aromas blend. Spread the mixture out on a clean paper towel and let dry completely. You can microwave for about 50 seconds to aid the process, but be careful not to let the lemongrass burn. Store the tea in a lidded container or muslin bag. Steep a teaspoon in a cup with strainer for three minutes.

Clove and Cinnamon Potpourri

Placed in a pretty bowl, the mixture will scent your kitchen delightfully.

Ingredients:

1 stick of cinnamon
1 tablespoon whole cloves
2 tablespoons sea salt

Break up the cinnamon stick and place it in the mortar, then add the cloves. Pound and grind the mixture until the cloves are broken up and the cinnamon is reduced to small flakes. Mix with the sea salt. The salt acts as a preservative so your potpourri will last a long time.

It is important to clean the mortar and pestle after every use, as many spices and herbs are strongly aromatic and the flavor will carry over to the next task. This applies even if you grind up a dry material, such as clove pods.

More than a trendy kitchen decoration, the mortar and pestle is a useful tool for preparing many household and culinary recipes. By crushing and blending your own herbal mixtures, you will gain far more aroma and flavor than is offered in the bland packet mixes on the supermarket shelf. Experiment and enjoy. All you have to lose is a couple of inches off your upper arms!

by Gail Kavanagh

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