Mortar and pestle
I'd like to buy a mortar and pestle, as every so often I run into recipes that tell me to either grind spices in it or to bash garlic and something into a paste. This tool comes in lots of sizes and lots of materials. Any thoughts on a good, basic size and material?
Look for one that doen't have a faux-coating. The ones that look like marble are often just stone with a veneer (on the outside of the bowl and on the pestle). These look nice in the store, but the veneer flakes off. This is a case where the more plain looking ones are probably better.
Look for a good solid one. It should be a little heavy. Size-wise, if you're just doing small batches of spices, pepper, etc., one about the size of your fist is good.
I have a smooth marble one (it's actually marble, it's not fake marble) that fits my fist into the bowl. It is a REAL workhorse -- I grind everything from pesto to curry paste in that thing.
I have one other, a molcajete, that I use for salsas. It just works better for me for salsas, where the rough igneous rock can rip into roasted chilies, onions, etc.
I don't wash mine with soap -- I use salt instead, because I found that soap worked its way into the rock, and then out of the rock into whatever I made next -- ick.
I, too, have a marble mortar and pestle (real marble) that I received as a gift ages ago. It does the trick, but it's honestly more decorative than anything else. When I finally tire of this one, I suspect I'll pick up a nice ceramic apothecary style set. The most important things, by far, are that the set be about 2 cups in volume and have a rough bottom to the bowl.