I have a love-hate relationship with labels.
On the one hand, I use my label-maker extensively to organized my personal spice drawer and my pantry. I’m never going to confuse my star anise with my allspice berries, but I get tired of trying to remember which jar is ground cumin and which has ground coriander without sticking my nose in the jar.
At the same time, I have always disliked the idea of being labeled.
It hit me the first time someone said to me, “You’re just a sportswriter.”
How dare you reduce a human life to a dismissive label? I won’t share which label I immediately slapped on THAT person.
People can’t be reduced to a single label like that. It’s a way of dismissing them from further consideration. Just like those spices I collect – they go in a jar until the next time you make spaghetti or chicken soup or whip up a rub for a rack of ribs.
People aren’t like spices. We’re not all basil or all rosemary. Every one of us is a blend of flavors and tastes, and we don’t just change day to day or even minute to minute. We can change in a heartbeat.
Here’s the thing about spices – they aren’t just one flavor, either. They react with one another. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme isn’t just a line from Simon and Garfunkle song “Scarborough Fair.” They are culinary herbs long admired for their magical properties.
Learning how to unlock the secrets each spice keeps locked inside it is both a challenge and a joyful experiment.
One of my favorite tricks is to toss cumin seeds into a dry pan and let them gently roast for a few minutes before putting them in my mortar and pestle to grind before adding to a batch of chili or stew.
Some herbs blossom when you gently heat them in oil. Some like to be sprinkled into the pot to mingle and enhance a dish while it cooks. Some don’t like the heat as much and are better left as a garnish at the end of the cooking process.
Part of the marvelous alchemy of the kitchen is learning how to best unlock the magic each spice holds as it sits in its labeled jar.
I keep thyme in my spice drawer and there’s a jar of sesame seeds in there most of the time as well. I use them in a great many of dishes. And I added sumac to my collection a few years ago because I like what it does when I sprinkle it on homemade hummus before serving.
But a foodie I greatly admire suggested that blending equal parts dried sumac, thyme and sesame seeds, then blending that mixture with an equal measure of sea salt turns it into something new and magical. And thus, my kitchen expanded with the new blend: za’atar. For starters, I put it in good, extra virgin olive oil and dip chunks of crusty bread into it.
I find that coaching is a lot like rummaging through my spice drawer.
Rob Collins reminded me of that the other day.
The girls basketball coach at East Valley has kept the Knights atop the Great Northern League for a good, long while and has had them in the state tournament the last four straight seasons. Last year’s first-round loss broke a string of three straight trophy-winning appearances, but this year they are the No. 1-ranked team in the state at Class 2A.
He reminded me that each of his teams has been different. Different players. Different abilities.
He’s had college-bound basketball players blended with college-bound volleyball players and exceptional high-school soccer players, and he’s turned them into a successful, winning blend of a basketball team. Year after year.
As he explained it, he knows what he believes in as a coach and as a program, and he sets out every year to do that better than anyone else.
But HOW he does it varies. It depends on his ingredients. He tweaks his recipe to fit his players. Rather than shaping players to fit his program, he tweaks his program to fit their talents and abilities.
Not a lot and not as much some years as in others. But a little all the time.
I guess that makes Collins as much a basketball cook as he is a basketball coach.
The same way a good cook tastes the stew and adjusts the recipe depending on what it needs to become the finished dish. Sometimes it’s a little salt; sometimes it’s a pinch of sugar. And sometimes it really needs a kick from something fiery or simply allowed the time to simmer, low and slow.
Sometimes that comes in the form of encouragement. Sometimes it’s nurturing. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tweaking a jump shot or learning how to set your feet in the low post. Other times it’s an outright demand for more effort or more focus.
And sometimes it’s about knowing when to step back and let the individual flavors meld together into a better stew of their own making.
He may start out trying to make a marinara and end up with a spicy puttanesca or a meaty Bolognese, but if the goal is to have something delicious to go with pasta, he’s home.
It’s about alchemy. It’s about knowing your ingredients and getting them to reach their fullest potential together.
It’s a subtle, gentle art we can all learn from.
And at EV, dinner is about to be served.
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