The good, the bad, and the ugly.
Good risotto requires three essentials – time, patience, and a healthy dose of respect for ingredients. The last risotto I made was at Thanksgiving. My brother in law, an aspiring amateur, volunteered me. He had crafted a non-conventional spread, got caught up in other preparations, and asked me to give him a hand. All the right stuff was assembled and my job became the time and the patience part. Once you get the hang of making risotto, you really do not need a recipe because much of the work is coaxing the rice into absorbing just the right amount of broth then stirring in some more cheese and butter.
The process is straightforward. Melt about half the butter in a pan, stir the rice into the melted butter, let it sizzle softly, start adding broth little by little until at the end the broth is absorbed and the rice is cooked just al dente. Incorporate the rest of the butter and cheese. Serve immediately.
When one of the essentials is missing, you get a bad risotto. Not enough time. Not enough patience. Or insufficient respect for the integrity of the ingredients. My first risotto was not all that good, but with practice you get the feel of it and with each repetition, the risotto gets better.
Classic proportions for four people as listed in my favorite Italian recipe source, Le Ricette Regionali Italiane: Quarta Edizione 1976, are as follows: 400 grams rice, 100 grams butter, 1 ½ liters stock, 80 grams parmigiano. Optional ingredients: medium onion, olive oil, white wine, saffron, salt, and pepper. Translated into common American measure:
2 cups short grain rice, measured dry
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 cups chicken or beef stock
1 cup grated parmigiano
Now, you may be asking, what has to be done to a sumptuous, sinfully delicious dish like risotto to make an ugly risotto? Let me explain.
Way back in 1997, as New York City restaurants were expanding their portion sizes and Americans were expanding their waistlines, four nutrition professionals and an intrepid food writer at The New York Times conducted a calorie counting experiment. The original article is still available at the Times website “Losing Count of Calories as the Plate Fills Up” and that is where I found it recently.
The purpose of that article was to highlight expanding portion sizes in restaurants. The signature dish was a risotto, which laboratory analysis determined contained 1280 calories and 110 grams of fat.
Under the most benign conditions, risotto is certainly not what you would call a light dish. Just check out the nutrition numbers below for a classic portion. Good risotto needs the right amount of butter and cheese to make it decadently delicious.
So I said to myself, what would you have to do to classic proportions to get 1280 calories and 110 grams of fat? Classic proportions by weight are consistent no matter which source you choose, so establishing a ratio is relatively easy. Ratios work by weight, so bear with me and we will walk through the weights together.
The ratio of rice to butter for the classic version is 4 to 1. In other words, four parts rice to one part butter plus the handful of cheese. In metric units, that is 400 grams rice to 100 grams butter. Or in common measure about 2 cups rice to 7 tablespoons butter.
It actually took me a while to retrofit the ratio to yield 1280 calories and 110 grams of fat. When I finally succeed, there was a lot more fat and a lot less rice. The calories from fat go from 44% for the classic risotto to 77% for this risotto. Starting with the same 400 grams / 2 cups rice, the butter needs to be increased to 600 grams. That is 43 tablespoons or 1 ⅓ pounds. Plus that handful of cheese. And who knows what kind of fat the restaurant used? Fresh unsalted butter? Margarine? Fats of unknown origin?
So how did it taste? To my great disappointment, not one of the nutrition professionals or even the intrepid food writer commented on how this risotto tasted so we will never know. What we do know, however, is that whatever this risotto was, it was not classic. I love butter. And I love cheese. But too much of a good thing can get ugly and that is why I decided to call this risotto ugly. So back it goes filed under nutrition in the archives of the New York Times. I plan to stay with a small portion of my decadently delicious and very good classic risotto.
One Portion Classic Risotto, about 1 ½ cups (364g): Calories 530, Fat 26g, Saturated Fat 16g, Sodium 370mg, Carbohydrate 59g, Fiber 2g, Protein 13g. One Portion Ugly Risotto, about 2 ½ cups (640g): Calories 1280, Fat 110g, Saturated Fat 70g, Sodium 350mg, Carbohydrate 55g, Fiber 2g, Protein 12g.