When my palate is needy, there’s a pesto I love to make: a rough-textured, smoky-tasting blend of toasted pumpkin seed, garlic, olive oil and cayenne pepper. It’s drier than traditional herb pestos, yet it holds a moist crumb. Its irregularity — creamy and a little grainy, in a good way — is something I find thoroughly addictive.
But the mixture is dry enough that labeling it as a pesto seems a little misleading, unless you’re already familiar with the etymology. Pesto translates, more or less, into “pounded,” from the Italian pestare, “to pound,” and it calls to mind the traditional means of making that fragrant Ligurian sauce of basil, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil: a mortar and pestle, which, incidentally, shares the same linguistic roots.
Less easy to grasp is why the mortar and pestle is a stranger to so many modern home kitchens, where it is arguably most useful. Pesto (or Tunisian harissa, Thai chili paste or any number of other classic blends traditionally made in the mortar and pestle) is good enough reason to own one. But so are the ancient tool’s simplicity and its easy way with basic tasks such as pounding garlic or ginger into a paste, crushing freshly toasted spices and grinding coarse salt. It begs for use no matter what you are cooking.