How many of you have been out at a Mexican restaurant and ordered the guacamole made tableside? That rock bowl in which the guac is pulverized is known as a molcajete y tejalote, Spanish for “mortar and pestle.” This carved basalt tool is traditionally used in Mexico, passed down through generations in many families (kind of like how I inherited my cast iron skillet!), and develops a gorgeous patina and texture over time.
Even though I’ve got a small ceramic mortar and pestle, I just couldn’t resist getting my hands on one when I was down in Mexico for Food Blogger Camp, and am pretty pleased with my impulsive decision. It’s a load, but Dan says my salsa tastes “just like in a restaurant!” and I’m psyched to have a bigger bowl for crushing roasted spices. If you decide to spring for this heavy piece of equipment, here’s how to break it in.
If you buy your molcajete from a specialty kitchenware store, chances are it will arrive clean and ready for seasoning. If you buy it from a local market or maybe cart it home in your suitcase from Zihuatanejo (like a fool we all know), then it might be covered in a layer of black soot that you’ll need to scrub off.
Luckily, the soot comes off easily with water and a wire brush. Submerge your molcajete in water (I used an industrial-sized plastic tub) and scrub away, lifting and dunking to see where the gray rock is exposed. If you can do this outside, so much the better, as the wire brush tends to spritz the dirty water everywhere. Once the entire piece is gray instead of black, give it a final rinse and allow to dry fully.
Now it’s seasoning time for the molcajete. Basically, the process “cleans” up the bowl of the stone by removing extra pumicey rock bits (you are working with a piece of carved volcanic rock, after all) and creating a smoother grinding surface akin to using a fine-grit sandpaper instead of a coarse-grit piece that will just tear stuff up. You’re looking for a surface that can turn spices into powder and make smooth salsas, not something that will leave you with rough chunks.
The best way to do this is by grinding rice down into powder. Watch the video to see how:
To clean your molcajete and tejalote, just rinse thoroughly and scrub gently with a potato or mushroom brush if there are any tenacious bits of food clinging to it. Don’t use dish soap or put it in the dishwasher—like a pizza stone, the basalt rock is porous and will absorb the soap’s fragrance, unpleasantly permeating anything else you put in the bowl.
Once your molcajete is seasoned, it’s time to christen it with a round of homemade salsa. Adapted from the house recipe at Cafe Pasqual’s in Santa Fe (home of the best savory breakfast dish ever, the huevos motuleños), this smoky tomato salsa is the one that makes Dan swoon. Is it quicker than making salsa in the food processor? Hell no. Does it taste better? You’re the final judge, but I say the extra ten minutes is worth the trouble.
Smoky Tomato Salsa
Total time: 15 minutes (plus overnight soaking for chipotle chiles)
Makes 2 cups
- 4 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped (about 3 cups)
- 1/2 Vidalia or sweet white onion, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)
- 1 dried chipotle chile, soaked to reconstitute*
- 1/4 cup cilantro, leaves and small stems only—if you’re a cilantro-phobe, just sub in flat-leaf parsley
- 1 tsp kosher salt
Fill the bowl of your molcajete with half the tomatoes and all other ingredients, and slowly begin to mash. After a few minutes, as the ingredients start to blend and become less chunky, add the remaining half of the tomatoes.
It will look messy and you’ll wonder if you’ll ever be able to pulverize all those onion bits and tomato skins. You will. Be patient, keep working the mixture with the pestle, and let the friction of the stone to its work. Stop when you get to a consistency that works for you—let some tomato chunks remain or keep going to make a more homogenous salsa.
*To reconstitute a dried chile, in a small bowl, pour boiling water over the chile to cover and allow to soak until softened (anywhere from 30 minutes to overnight, depending on the toughness of the chile). I usually soak my chipotles for three to four hours before making my salsa.