*This is the second installment. If you missed the one about artichokes, click here.
Six ingredients, none of them out of the ordinary: ground beef, onion, rice, butter, broth and cheese. I watched my grandmother make this countless times. My participation was limited to checking the rice for discolored pieces before it went in the pot, and an occasional stir. The specifics of the recipe, or lack thereof, became evident the first time I tried the dish on my own. My grandmother used a bowl full of rice. I knew which bowl, the dark gold colored one; however, I did not have that particular bowl in our college townhouse kitchen. I also had not gained an appreciation for the growth potential of uncooked rice, nor grasped the concept of a typical soup bowl's capacity. I think I might have started out with three cups of rice. I am fairly certain I also used chicken broth instead of beef. This mattered. I knew stirring was involved so that the rice would not stick, but also recalled being told that if I stirred too much, as an ambitious eight year old may have been wan to do, the rice would get sticky. So much room for error. The final product was not a bad meal, but absolutely not what I was aiming for. Luckily, college roommates and neighbors tend to be hungry and not terribly picky people.
Many subsequent attempts at my family's risotto have been executed in my kitchen. Cook the beef and onion down longer, don't be afraid of butter or salt, be patient and let the rice brown a bit, add the broth and pretend there is a science as to how much each time and how often to stir, parmesan or asiago cheese - not romano. I have come close. My mother has it down correctly, despite a recent addition of mushrooms. My grandmother does not cook anymore because her memory for creating something from scratch has escaped her.
My last effort probably tasted like the risotto I often long for. The taste of victory faded quickly though, as it did not bring the comfort I expected. I got greedy. I wanted to be at my grandparents' kitchen table, with my plate of rice having been scooped with that black handled metal spoon from that thick pot. I wanted a fresh tomato from my grandfather's garden because it just made the meal taste even better. Of course I also wanted my grandfather to still be with us. My quest for perfection in preparing this meal had ignored what I was really striving for in the most recent years.
As I provided some commentary to my family on the quality of our dinner, all three of them were politely quiet...the way we always were when my grandmother started critiquing the sticky/salty/bland/undercooked rice she had made.