01 June 2012

Joys of the Molcajete

You see them as decorations in Mexican restaurants, sometimes you get a little salsa in a tiny one, but the molcajete y tejolote is an amazing type of mortar and pestle tool. For the past decade, I've used my tiny, apothecary-style marble set. While fun, it's too small to do any serious work and dry spices tend to go flying out of the cup. During my recent visit to the Cordova International Market, I decided to finally bite the bullet and get myself a proper molcajete from Puebla, made from vesicular basalt, a volcanic rock. The whole thing set me back a whopping $20, and now it has an honored place in my kitchen. Always good to go back to the Paleolithic with your cooking utensils. Teflon? Feh.

But first Señor Puerco had to be seasoned.

On the first day, I ground some dry rice, and I generated a lot of grit. Back in my anthropology days, I handled a lot of old skulls that showed the wear pattern from having a lot of stone-ground grains in the diet. Think teeth that look like they've been cut in half and all the pulp and nerves are exposed. Those poor guys must have been in constant pain before dying in their 40s. But I know a lot of chefs use molcajetes without incident and I won't be eating from the thing every day, so I persisted. A real basalt molcajete is perfectly safe, unless you drop it on your foot or it shifts while you're holding it in your lap and one of those heavy stone feet stomps you in the testicles. Time for a little research!

Moisture makes a huge difference. I used Rick Bayless' suggestion of wet rice, and suddenly everything went much easier. Four rounds of grey, gritty rice later, I was making pure rice flour. I didn't do anything with it, but it was bright white and contained no bits of stone. After this cleaning phase, it was time to start the second round of seasoning: flavors. I took a few cloves of garlic, a little olive oil, mustard seeds, peppercorns, toasted cumin, and a few other whole ingredients and began grinding. I made the most aromatic (but non-photogenic) brown paste that I would have loved to rub on chicken and throw on the grill. I took the paste, diluted it in water, and found no stone fragments at the bottom. This weekend, I will finally break in the molcajete with salsa fresca.

Cleaning it is simple: no detergent, a little water and scrubby brush. To dry it out, leave it on the stovetop while you're cooking and the ambient heat will dry it out. I was worried about damaging it, but then thought, "This thing was born in a volcano. It will be perfectly fine on an old GE four-burner." The heat resilience also allows you to do cool things like turn it upside down over* a burner, get it nice and toasty, and then toss in your onions and tomatoes and other ingredients, which will cook a bit as you grind away.

As I study more and more traditional Mexican cooking of the many different regions, I expect Señor Puerco to be a valuable and important addition to my kitchen. If you're looking for one, avoid the cheap concrete ones or those that are purely for decoration. After a week of seasoning and testing, you'll know pretty quickly whether or not you have the real thing.


*Southerners have a tendency to double up on prepositions. I try to avoid this (although I just did it in the preceding sentence), but I have a certain glee whenever I string together three or more.

3 comments:

Ruth said...

Oohh, adding texture and sound to the cooking experience can only be good.
The story you told about the skulls, gave me tooth ache LOL

Benito said...

Ruth,

The teeth thing is real. If you're not squeamish, you can look at one of those skulls. A lot of ancient people would use soft sedimentary rock like sandstone to grind grains, which would just dump a ton of sand into your meal. You can't use smooth stones, but an extrusive volcanic rock like basalt has the perfect combination of rough texture and hardness.

Cheers,
Benito

Ruth said...

I did look. It looked quite painful. I am glad I don't have sand in my diet!