When I first returned to playing basketball as an adult after a few years away, I was disappointed with my game. There were the obvious reasons, like I was out of shape and practice, but there was another obvious reason that took me a while to see. Even as I started to be able to play without fighting for air after thirty seconds and the feel for the ball returned a bit, I felt flat. I wasn’t making plays, at least not good ones, and the defense seemed to be able limit my offensive options rather easily. Suddenly, one day, away from the court, apropos of nothing I can remember, it dawned on me: I had forgot about faking! It was a revelation.
I had returned to the court, but I had completely forgotten that skill I had practiced for hours as a kid, even (especially) when no one was around. The next time I played, I started faking, and suddenly the joy returned. For, in fact, for me, the pleasures of the game are not simply scoring or winning (those things actually happen a lot in basketball), but the rarer, more subtle and elusive pleasures like a steal, a blocked shot, or an effective fake. Scoring a basket feels good, but stealing a pass makes my heart beat faster. Winning’s better than losing, but at 5’10” blocking a shot makes me feel powerful in a way that few things do. And for a fairly straightforward guy, that moment of deceit when you feign one way and your opponent falls for it, and you slide right by him for a lay-up, or dish to a now open teammate because someone else is collapsing in on you in the lane, that’s transcendent.
Well, I had similar revelation regarding the kitchen the other day. I received an email from my friend Erin in which she mentioned offhandedly a marinade she had made, and the scales fell from my eyes. Though I had listed my improvement as a cook as one of my ten highlights of 2007, the fact was I hadn’t marinated a single thing all year long. Even as I was trying new combinations of ingredients and attempting new techniques, the thought of marinating something I was preparing had never really crossed my mind.
Like the fake in basketball, it seemed such an obvious fundamental. How could I have overlooked it? No wonder the chicken was the weakest part of my risottos. The meat should never be the disappointing part of a dish—and until that moment I hadn’t figured out how to fix that. I immediately made marinating more one of my New Year’s resolutions for 2008, and tonight I out-marinated 2007.
First I read Joy of Cooking to make sure there wasn’t some aspect I was ignorant of, and to see what they were suggesting for proportions and quantities, then I went about making me very own simple marinade for a pound of chicken breasts: ¼ cup olive oil, the juice from 2/3 of a lemon (it’s what I had on hand—I’m describing here, not prescribing), two cloves of garlic, and some salt.
A couple hours later I sautéed some onions in olive oil, then added the chicken, and a minute or two before it was done I added sun-dried tomatoes. I served the whole thing over couscous, and like my basketball experience years ago, the joy returned. The first bite of chicken sang with flavor. Instead of the seasoning being outside the meat, accompanying it, it infused it—it was part of it.
Too often when you are single, cooking and eating can seem like unrewarding activities. There is no one else to appreciate what you have prepared, so it’s easy to take shortcuts, which then make the food less satisfying. If eating alone sometimes feels like a necessary task, marinating allowed me to revel in the flavor of the food I had cooked. Dinner tonight was no chore to eat.