While I was putting together the recent post about mortars and pestles, I came across Maria Robledo’s beautiful image of one of my favorite mortar-made sauces. I learned the deceptively simple recipe from chef Grey Kunz years ago and it has been enduringly great: an example of the magic of a few well-chosen ingredients artfully combined by a talented chef. Full-fat yogurt provides the base for an unusual combination of flavors: cumin, coriander, cardamom in league with fresh basil, lime and jalapeno, all crushed in a mortar. Its effect is far more than the sum of its parts.
This sauce is wonderful on fresh and cooked vegetables and grilled seafood; spectacular with roasted, poached or smoked salmon; and a great, cooling “raita-like” foil alongside fiery dishes from Indian to Southern barbecue . It makes a lovely dessert when served on ripe honeydew or Persian melon.
The extreme acidity and lack-of-body in nonfat and many low-fat yogurts will undermine the sauce. I use a whole milk yogurt, preferably sheep’s milk which is extremely creamy and luxurious. (A 1/4-cup serving will max out at a slim 40 calories.) To duplicate whole milk yogurt in a pinch, mix equal parts low-fat yogurt and or full-or-reduced fat sour cream.
Recipe: Yogurt Sauce with Toasted Spices, Lime Peel and Basil
Although you don’t have to make this sauce in a mortar, it is more delicious, and makes for a lovely presentation if you do.
The sauce is best eaten the day it is made, although it will keep 2 days refrigerated, with a slight fading of flavor.
Makes 1 cup
Scant 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
4 coriander seeds
Seeds from 1 cardamom pod
1 cup whole milk yogurt or sheep’s milk yogurt
8 basil leaves, finely chopped
1/2 small jalapeno, seeded and minced
1 teaspoon finely grated lime peel
1/8 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a small skillet, toast the cumin, coriander and cardamom seeds over moderate heat until you can smell their fragrance. Set aside to cool slightly.
In a mortar, grind the toasted spices with a pestle to a fine powder. (Alternatively, you can do this in a spice grinder or blender). Remove and set aside in a small bowl.
Add the yogurt to the mortar. Stir in the basil, minced chile pepper, lime peel, sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of the spice powder, working the pestle to press the ingredients against the side of the mortar. Stir in salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate 1/2 hour before serving to let the flavors marry.