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Seasonal Pantry: Enjoy your whole fat fonduta, with risotto

Something is bothering me. In early September, Newsweek ran an article about a study that concluded that eating three servings of full-fat dairy products a day could lower one's risk of heart disease. The study included more than 130,000 people in nearly two dozen countries.

This implies that butter, whole milk, yogurt, cream and cheese are good for us.

If you pay attention to such topics - I do, as it is part of the scope of my work - you are not surprised. The fat of ruminants, i.e., animals who chew their cud, contain almost 20 nutrients not found elsewhere or only in very small quantities. For example, one of the nutrients, butyric acid, is found only in the fat of ruminants, though a small amount is created in our gut when we eat oatmeal, which accounts for the popularity of oatmeal muffins in the 1980s. Butyric acid is necessary for our brains to form new neurons, and it has also been shown to slow and reverse the growth of tumors, both in the laboratory and in studies with humans.

This type of saturated fat is not and never has been the bugaboo we have been lead to believe.

What bothers me about the article is not the study itself, of course, nor its conclusions that eating these foods is not a problem.

What troubles me is the patronization of Americans, a common but very annoying occurrence when it comes to what we eat and drink, by one of the “experts,” who was quoted as saying “ … people should not take the results to excess and eat as much dairy as they like.”

The assumption here is that we will pig out on something if we are told it isn't bad for us. It implies that what we want is always in excess of what we should have.

The same thing happened in the 1990s, with the French paradox, which suggested, in part, that drinking alcohol was actually good for one's health. I attended a conference in Spain where one of the speakers actually said, “We can't tell Americans this because they would all become alcoholics.”

“If it tastes good, it is bad for you” is a frequent comment, including among so-called experts on both radio and television. I heard a chef say exactly this on a talk show on KGO-AM just a week or so ago.

My version is, “If we didn't enjoy eating and drinking, we would not exist as a species.”

As always, it is best to eat as locally as possible, with a simplicity that highlights true flavors and textures, instead of covering them up. This is so easy to do, especially in Sonoma County, where we have access to the country's cleanest dairy products and have an abundant year-round harvest of vegetables, fruits, poultry and meat. A good place to start is to simply not eat packaged foods, whether in boxes, such as “Hamburger Helper,” or in ready-to-heat foods from a grocer's shelves or freezer compartments.

If you eat cheese, eat real cheese, not something that has been highly processed and is more “faux-cheese” than cheese.

When we eat bad foods, such as faux-cheese in all its forms, it is actually easier to overeat than if we enjoy the real thing, as we never achieve the satisfaction we seek.

If you're annoyed with me or not yet convinced about all this, consider that as fat phobia has increased and various government agencies have warned us about eating saturated fats, the problem of obesity has grown into an epidemic. There are many factors that account for this, but fear of food and rejection of what truly is healthy have a big impact.

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This classic dish is adapted from one in the late Carol Field's book, “Celebrating Italy” (Morrow, 1990). According to Fields, fonduta was created via an accident, when a chef in Geneva, Switzerland, meant to make the base for a soufflé and ended up with this delicious cheese sauce. It wasn't long before the dish became popular and migrated to Italy, where it grew into a New Year's tradition in Piedmont. If you find yourself with some fresh white truffles, grate some over the top of each portion just before serving. You will often find fonduta described as Italian fondue and, while it is similar, it is not traditionally served as a dip but instead is used as a sauce. Enjoy it on risotto, polenta and a variety of vegetables, including broccoli, grilled cabbage and roasted beets.

Risotto con Fonduta

Serves 4

8 ounces Italian Fontina or similar cheese, cut into ½-inch cubes

1/2 cup whole milk, lukewarm

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

1 garlic clove, minced

1 bay leaf

2 cups Vialone Nano or Carnaroli rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

- Kosher salt

4 1/2 cups homemade beef broth or stock, hot

1 tablespoons flour

1 egg yolk, well beaten

- Black pepper in a mill

Put the cheese into the top half of a double boiler and pour the lukewarm milk over it. Cover and set aside. Fill the bottom half of the double boiler with about 3 inches of water and set over a burner (do not turn on the heat yet).

Put the olive oil and butter in a deep saucepan (an All-Clad saucier is ideal) set over medium heat. When the butter is melted, add the garlic, bay leaf and rice, stir and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the white wine and simmer until it is nearly completely evaporated. Season with salt.

Begin adding hot stock to the rice, 1/3 cup at a time, stirring continuously, until the rice has absorbed all of it, about 16 to 18 minutes.

Set the heat under the double boiler to medium-low, so that the water barely simmers, and set the top half of the double boiler over the bottom half. Sprinkle the flour over the cheese and milk and stir gently until the cheese is melted. Stir in the egg yolk, season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat.

To serve, ladle rice into soup plates and use the ladle to press down in the center of each portion to make a nest. Pour the fonduta into the nest and enjoy right away.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts “Mouthful, Smart Talk About Food, Wine & Farming” on KRCB FM on Sunday evenings at 6 p.m. Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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