Dynamic duo

Mortar and pestle (Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune)

The mortar and pestle provide a true hands-on cooking experience. Modern-day cooks are discovering culinary catharsis by pulverizing, grinding and muddling ingredients much as their ancient counterparts did many millennia ago.

Made of wood, stone, porcelain, glass or metal, the mortar is a bowl-shaped receptacle into which the bat-shaped pestle fits. After spices, herbs, grains, roots, seeds or nuts are placed inside the mortar, the pestle is then moved in a circular motion inside of it, which causes ingredients to be broken down and flavors to be released.

Susan Belsinger of Brookeville, Md., is a culinary herbalist (susanbelsinger.com) and cookbook author who owns nearly 50 mortar and pestle pairings, ranging in size from 11/2 to 16 inches in diameter. She travels the world and always packs her favorite, a 12-inch English vitreous porcelain mortar and pestle, for cooking demonstrations.

Belsinger has used a mortar and pestle in her vegetarian cooking for more than 30 years. She says a mid-20th century fascination with cooking appliances — blenders, food processors and grinders — hastened the unfamiliarity for the lowly mortar and pestle. But that, Belsinger says, is changing.

"There is a resurgence of people who are using the mortar and pestle because they want to be in touch with their food," she said.

The beauty of a mortar and pestle is a simplicity of design that transcends cultures and time. Belsinger said it's only logical that prehistoric individuals fashioned mortar and pestle-like tools out of rock and wood to grind seed, nuts or grains.

Made from volcanic rock, the Mexican version of the mortar and pestle (molcajete y tejolote) dates back at least 6,000 years. This ancient tool was found in the Valley of Tehuacan, Mexico, which was also discovered to be a place where corn (or maize) was cultivated. Italian frescoes from the 15th century show apothecary uses of mortars and pestles.

Belsinger says different mortars and pestles have specific uses: Bowl-shaped mortars are good for mixing pesto and salsa verde, while cup-shaped mortars are conducive to grinding seeds. Wooden mortars and pestles should never be used with oils, since these liquids can turn the wood rancid.

From a handmade Spanish 3-inch mortar and pestle for less than $10 to a 6-inch Himalayan salt variety for $65, these trusty tools come in all shapes, sizes and price points. A 5-inch Japanese suribachi, made of earthenware is about $15, while a stainless-steel mortar and pestle are about $25.

Ashley Nunez uses two mortar and pestle sets in her Overland Park, Kan., kitchen with her two children, Carmela, 10, and Julian, 8. Married to Cuban-born cardiologist Julian Nunez, Ashley launched a website (junkfoodkids.com) to share healthy recipes for children in a fast-food world.

"I cook healthy but simple foods for my family," Nunez said. "I like to make all my food from scratch, especially since Carmela was diagnosed with an allergy to food preservatives."

Nunez uses a palm-size porcelain mortar and pestle for small tasks, but her workhorse is a Le Creuset stoneware 20-ounce pairing (less than $40).

While Nunez still uses her food processor and blender, she finds it much easier to grab the mortar and pestle when she's preparing spices for Cuban dishes: "Cubans use garlic, onions and cumin, which release such a wonderful aroma in the mortar and pestle."

Belsinger said spices and foods broken down in a mortar and pestle are completely different than ingredients pulsed in a food processor.

"When you use a mortar and pestle, you are releasing essential oils," she said. "For example, you can really taste the basil, the pine nuts, and the garlic in a pesto made in a mortar and pestle."

Nunez prefers to buy whole spices and pound them into a powdered form. "I like to make banana bread by grinding the cinnamon and nutmeg in my mortar and pestle," she said.

"The mortar and pestle is an honest cook's tool," Belsinger said. "It's just an intuitive instrument that engages people of all ages, including children."

foods@tribune.com

Mortars, pestles around the world