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Laying the groundwork

September 15, 2004|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

Our Stone Age forebears figured out how to "process" food long ago, and the technology they invented still beats our modern gadgets in many ways.

Yes, I'm talking about bashing stuff with rocks. The fact is, when you pound food in a mortar, you have far more control than when you push a button. Textures can be smoother. Spices yield their all. Nothing gets overheated.

Cooks around the world have their own styles of mortar, each with its own virtues. One of the pleasures of the modern world is that we can choose from so many.


Heavyweight champ

This Thai mortar carved from granite is less coarse than a molcajete, but it has more bite than smooth ceramic mortars.

What's the difference: The weight -- it won't shift around while you're working. Be careful not to drop the stone pestle, though, because it will break.

What we thought: Versatile and efficient. Pounds garlic, crushes spices and grinds greens. If you find several sizes at a Thai shop, choose the one with the heaviest pestle you're comfortable with.

How much: $19.59 from Bangluck Market, Hollywood.


Groovy grinder

The Japanese suribachi is made of deeply grooved pottery with a wooden pestle.

What's the difference: The lightest mortar. Its grooves effectively grind up nuts, mealy vegetables and fish for fish cakes.

What we thought: The grooves are so deep you may have to scrape ground stuff out with a fork. It's a bargain, though.

How much: $8.95 from Sur la Table.


Volcano power

This Mexican molcajete, carved from volcanic stone, is traditionally used for making guacamole and salsas. To season, soak it in water for 24 hours, then grind garlic and cumin seeds in it and rinse out. If it's not seasoned, it may leave some grit in your food.

What's the difference: Roughest of all the mortars, it has an exotic pre-Columbian look; it is often used for serving the salsa or guacamole. The stone is slightly porous, so if you wash it with soap the flavor may remain and taint your food. But it cleans up well in hot water.

What we thought: Coarse stone makes quick work of grinding onions, cilantro, fresh chiles and other spices, so it's ideal for Mexican sauces, but it's not the thing for grinding spices very fine. The large pestle is ideal for mashing avocados.

How much: $14 at Saavedra's Produce, 1246 E. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, or $39.95 at Sur la Table.


Study in elegance

This Italian mortar is carved out of solid olive wood.

What's the difference: Has a relatively deep and narrow bowl to keep ingredients from jumping out.

What we thought: Best suited for light grinding and mixing jobs, such as making mayonnaise or vinaigrette. And hey, it's just plain gorgeous.

How much: $78 from Williams-Sonoma.


The spice specialist

This small, shallow marble mortar has a broad pestle shaped like a mushroom.

What's the difference: It's specifically designed for grinding spices, with the maximum possible mortar-to-pestle surface contact.

What we thought: Unless you have to grind large quantities, this is about the best spice grinder there is; just lean on it and rock the pestle around. However, it's not good for much else.

How much: $12.95 from Surfas in Culver City.


Classic look

The English apothecary's mortar has a classic mortar shape.

What's the difference: The very slightly rough working surfaces of vitrified ceramic do not absorb flavors or colors. Dishwasher and microwave safe.

What we thought: Does a good job on spices, less effective on vegetables. Particularly suited for making liquid sauces such as vinaigrette, because it's light and it has a pouring lip.

How much: $39 from Williams-Sonoma.

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