Although I LOVE using a mortar and pestle, and posted my recommendations for buying one a while back, you don’t actually have to have one to achieve its wonderful effect. That effect has much to do with the flavors you get from pounding and mashing ingredients like garlic, nuts, herbs and spices rather than chopping them up in a food processor. Pounding makes for sweeter, more rounded flavors.
The most important thing is to have something to pound with — a pestle — and there are all sorts of things you can use. My favorites are rocks, but I’ve been known to use a door knob, as well as the random pestles I’ve come across in my wanderings, like the hour-glass shaped wooden one I found in a Senegalese grocery store in NYC, and my Greek great grandmother’s pestle that she used to make fabulous Skordalia (garlic sauce).
The mortar part is easy. You can use any hard, unbreakable bowl like an ordinary stainless steel kitchen bowl. If you have a solid work surface that can take a beating you can work directly on it. I made a walnut pesto by pounding garlic, walnuts and parsley right on my black slate table and my white Corian kitchen counters while playing with several different pestles.
Select your pounder and get to work. It you use a rock, choose one that fits firmly in your hand and has a flatish side that can mash your ingredients.
Sprinkling some coarse salt on ingredients lends a rough texture that helps to break things down. I roughly pound the walnuts with the garlic, and then do the parsley separately to get started. Coarsely chopping the parsley makes it easier to turn to a fine mash quickly.
Then I start pounding them all together. After you’ve got the ingredients roughly broken down, you can keep working on the surface, even pounding in extra-virgin olive oil, IF your preparation is not meant to be to be too liquid…
….or transfer the mash to a stainless steel bowl. Setting the bowl on a kitchen towel softens the blows a bit, protects the surface and keeps the bowl from sliding. Hold the bowl with one hand while you mash with the other.
After the walnuts and parsley got to a texture I liked, I began to drizzle in extra-virgin olive oil while I continued to pound.
I compared other pestles I have. I found that my trusty rocks works almost as well as my grandmother’s pestle…which is the easiest to handle.
…the little Senegalese one works well too. I’d forgotten how satisfying it is to pound ingredients together, as has been done for eons by cooks all over the world.
The simple walnut pesto had an unctuous, elemental flavor and texture that I could never achieve in a food processor. It was hard to stop eating (and makes a curiously satisfying snack.)
Here are the rough proportions and steps for the Walnut Pesto:
-1 garlic clove, peeled, halved, green sprout removed (if any)
-coarse (kosher) salt
-8 ounces walnuts
-small bunch parsley, about 2 handfuls OR however much seems right to you
-extra-virgin olive oil
-a few drops lemon juice (optional, to lift flavors)
Place the garlic and salt in a mortar, an unbreakable bowl or directly on the work urface.
Pound to a paste.
Add the walnuts and roughly pound.
Coarsely chop the parsley and pound to a coarse mash. Continuing pounding all the ingredients until they break down to a texture you like. Gradually drizzle in olive oil to make a loose paste. Adjust the seasoning.
Note: Variations could include a few tablespoons of bread crumbs, softened butter, grated Parmigiano.
Walnut Pesto is, of course, wonderful on pasta with some grated Parmigiano. It is terrific on garlicky grilled bread spread with goat cheese, and on white beans. I’ve been known to put it on crushed potatoes and other vegetables.
Tonight, I made a supper of carrots dressed with walnut sauce (using a little of the cooking water to emulsify it).
For more info about mortars and pestles, see Mortars and Pestles to Buy (and Ones Not To)