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Bump and Grind

When I started cooking, I collected all of the newest and fanciest gadgets I could find. I seem to be moving backward. My latest obsession is the mortar and pestle.

There are only two parts (uh, the mortar and the pestle); there are no optional attachments. It doesn’t plug in and it doesn’t go in the dishwasher.

There are four or five in my kitchen already. There’s a tiny one made of wood that is supposed to be for grinding spices. I confess I never use it for that; it holds toothpicks instead. A coffee grinder works better for grinding spices and, oddly, is less expensive.

There’s a really pretty ceramic one that I picked up at a Japanese hardware store. It looks like a raku pot and has a ridged interior to make grinding herbs easier. This one gets used all the time for making things like pesto and flavored mayonnaise.

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But by far the workhorse of my mortar and pestle collection is the molcajete. In fact, I have three of them; two for show, one for go.

The first one I got was a learning experience. I bought it at a Mexican market and didn’t shop carefully enough. It has a very coarse interior pitted with holes into which you could fit a pinto bean. It is now an objet d’art in my garden.

My second molcajete came from Chicago restaurateur and Mexican cookbook author Rick Bayless. It is in the shape of a pig, and painted on the side in bright red, black and gold is the legend “Chicago Bulls.” Though it works perfectly well, it is far too cool to use.

Finally, my main molcajete is one a friend bought in Tijuana (I have searched all over Los Angeles, but for some reason I have never been able to find a good one here). It is solidly made, and although the interior is certainly coarse, the holes are small enough that food doesn’t end up getting lost in them.

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I broke it in just the way Diana Kennedy recommends: I wet some raw rice and ground it. I rinsed and repeated until there were no longer any black flecks in the rice. That’s all you need to do. Now you understand why there are no owner’s manuals for mortars and pestles.

A small confession: Nine-tenths of what I’ve made in this molcajete lately has been guacamole. That’s because I’ve been making guacamole almost every night. When you have an avocado tree, that’s what you do this time of year.

Nothing could be simpler. Grind a clove of garlic in the bowl of the mortar (you can even peel the garlic by giving it a good whack with the pestle to loosen the skin). Add the peeled, pitted avocado in large chunks and then pound it a couple of times. Give it a good circular grind, add salt to taste and then grind once more.

You’ve got to try this if you have access to good, ripe avocados (we do, they seem to be the only thing our retriever-cross reliably retrieves; they show up as if by magic under the dining room table). You don’t need chile, you don’t need onion and you don’t need cilantro. The clean, direct herbaceousness of a really good avocado is something special all by itself.

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You can serve it in the molcajete or scrape it into a bowl. To clean the molcajete, just rinse it under hot running water and scrub it with a soft-bristled brush.

I do use my molcajete--and other mortars and pestles--for other things too. Though almost anything you can do in a mortar and pestle can also be done in a blender or a food processor, many of them can’t be done nearly as well.

There’s a basic difference in the way they work. In a mortar and pestle, the ingredients are smashed and ground. They are pulped and rubbed. In a blender or food processor, they are cut, albeit very finely.

You can really see the difference between the two in the making of garlic-marinated pork skewers and tomatillo salsa. Grind the garlic and oil in a mortar and pestle and you wind up with a coarse though cohesive puree that coats the meat and sticks to it. Do the same thing in a blender and you wind up with olive oil with little bits of garlic chopped up in it. Though the oil will coat the meat, the garlic bits won’t adhere. It’s not a big deal, but good cooking is made up of details that matter.

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On the other hand, this salsa is better made by blender. The skins of the tomatillos are so tough they don’t grind very easily. You wind up with big chunks of skin floating in tomatillo pulp. This is not good at all. Some things are better electrically.

GRILLED GARLICKY SKEWERS WITH TOMATILLO SALSA

If you use wooden skewers, soak them in water for at least 30 minutes before cooking to keep them from burning. Pork shoulder butt steak is available in Latino markets. If you can’t find it, buy a small piece of pork butt roast and slice it yourself. Flap meat is the same thing as hangar steak. If you can’t find it, substitute skirt steak. Failing that, use round steak.

5 cloves garlic

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1/4 cup olive oil

Juice of 3 limes

1 1/2 pounds pork shoulder butt steak

1 1/4 pounds beef flap meat

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Salt, pepper

Red pepper flakes

Dried Mexican oregano

1 pound tomatillos, husks removed

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1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Pound 5 cloves garlic to coarse puree in mortar and pestle. Add olive oil and grind to paste. Scrape into mixing bowl and whisk in juice of 2 1/2 limes until smooth. (If using blender, grind garlic and oil together, then pulse in lime juice.)

Cut pork and beef into thin 1/4- to 1/2-inch-thick slices. Dust liberally with salt, pepper, red pepper flakes and oregano. Dip pork slices 1 at a time in garlic paste and put in plastic storage bag. Then dip beef slices 1 at a time in garlic paste and put in another plastic bag. Seal bags tightly and refrigerate at least 2 hours to overnight.

Broil tomatillos in single layer about 1 inch from heat source until tops have begun to blacken and blister. Remove from broiler, cut in half and puree in blender with remaining garlic clove and juice of 1/2 lime until smooth. Season with salt to taste and, if necessary, add more lime juice. Pour into serving bowl and stir in cilantro.

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Thread meat onto skewers and grill over very hot fire until browned and crisp on outside but still moist inside, about 7 minutes on first side, 5 minutes on second.

Place skewers on platter and serve with tomatillo salsa.

8 servings. Each serving:

255 calories; 129 mg sodium; 68 mg cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 5 grams carbohydrates; 24 grams protein; 0.04 gram fiber.

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