I’m unashamed to confess that the handful of times I’ve been to an Olive Garden, I’ve gone right for the shrimp and asparagus risotto. It goes without saying that there are much better versions in the world—which I’ve since had, and loved—but Olive Garden was my introduction to risotto, and well, that is what it is.
More than a rice and neighboring pasta, the creamy grain absorbs flavors from its fellow ingredients. For example, if one were to make Fun Dip risotto—just go with me—he would end up with a slimy, starchy, aromatic version of that neon, radioactive sugar. Having learned about risotto at Olive Garden, my thoughts about it inevitably return to the gutter now and then.
At the intersection of food and culture—particularly food television—risotto is everywhere. Ina, Giada, and Mario will tell you how it’s an exercise in patience and persistence, that the trick is always low heat and dutiful, constant stirring. It requires the kind of Barefoot Contessa Zen that Liz Lemon would anxiously abandon to binge on Krispy Kremes and cheese balls. I assume that’s why risotto is easily the riskiest dish for the jittery contestants on Top Chef to prepare. Few things guarantee a spot in the bottom three and a glare from Padma more than a dessert or a risotto.
For that reason, I was terrified to try making it. Maybe I didn’t possess Ina’s serene focus; perhaps risotto was a task so insurmountable that like its Top Chef casualties, I was better off packing my knives and going home. It was easy to feel intimidated. A few months ago I bought a 2 1/4 lb. canister of arborio rice which sat in the back of my cabinet while I avoided eye contact and hoped it wouldn’t pick me.
Last night was a watershed moment that started with that need to make something kind-of-all-right with ingredients in my currently understocked kitchen. The only fresh things in my fridge were green beans, onion, and parmesan—I realized from a basic recipe on the rice container that along with some incidentals (butter, vegetable stock, simple seasonings) I could build a risotto. I had the technology.
With nothing better to do, I dove right in. I quickly understood why chefs love to make it and why the process can be therapeutic—risotto calls for its maker to coach it through some serious dilation. And unlike orzo, which you can just leave to boil, arborio rice swells to two or three times its size at the constant risk of cooking unevenly or burning. The ceaseless stirring amounts to a Lamaze class with tiny grains you’ve just met and who trust you to stir them well for your sake and theirs.
When it finally came time to eat the finished product, I was shocked that it tasted great. My first risotto was a bit too al dente, so I know to cook it longer and more slowly next time. Either way, the feedback was right there in the dish. It filled me with creative energy to try other variables, some protein or autre legumes. I felt like I was having the conversation after a beginners’ yoga class about what everyone felt their bodies do during the same series of poses.
In completing this circuit, I began to understand where Ina’s Zen comes from.