Off to the Races

A quarter mile into my half-mile swim during the first leg of the Greenwich Triathlon this past Sunday, both my lungs filed for a divorce from the rest of my body. They were screaming bloody murder, and I fully expected that to happen.

With every stroke it felt as if a boa constrictor was tightening its hold, squeezing ever so slightly, making each breath less and less productive. My lungs had good reason to be bitter.

A few minutes later, as I was rounding the first big orange buoy, my stomach and the bacon, egg and cheese sandwich I ate that morning began to argue over turf. Luckily, they reached some sort of agreement.

It had seemed reasonable at the time -- 5:30 that morning -- to have a little breakfast before attempting my very first triathlon. It is, after all, the ultimate test of mental and physical strength.

And you'd think that after denying my body the pleasure of eating carbs for months now that it would jump for joy at the sight of a freshly baked Portuguese roll loaded with my new mainstay, protein. However, it proved to be a bit of a transition.

A Strict Regimen

I've mentioned in the past that I have been on a virtually carb-free diet for some time now. It's done wonders for my physical and mental condition, and my body feels better than it ever has.

After a month without carbs, I realized that I didn't miss the bread, rice, pasta and potatoes as much as I anticipated. When you think about the havoc wreaked on your blood sugar level -- and feel the benefits almost immediately -- it's easy to drop the carbs.

So why did I go back to carbs?

Well, when you use up the instant energy source that carbs provide through a workout as intense as a triathlon, you can eat as many as you like. If you didn't work out, the carbs would just get packed on as fat.

So as part of my training for this triathlon, I started carb-loading the entire week leading up to the event. It was amazing: pasta, rice, baked potatoes, Snickers bars. You name it, I gobbled it down.

It certainly was a great reward after months of being disciplined and denying myself an entire food group. (If you're considering a long bike ride, a hike or a run this weekend, consider a heaping plate of carbs beforehand. You'll have earned it.)

Of course, there's an important distinction to be made: Twizzlers, M&M's, Mr. Goodbar and delicious champagne truffles from

Maison Du Chocolate are all ample sources of carbohydrates.

But so are fettuccine with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano and shaved summer truffles, a crispy coal-fired pizza margarita and a plate of creamy risotto.

The difference between the two groups is self-evident; let's focus on the latter.

A Delicious Reintroduction

The Friday night before the triathlon, I treated myself to a risotto made with bacon, Gruyere cheese and thyme.

It wasn't a planned meal; my good friend and "tri-bro" (triathlon brother) and I had just undergone some last-minute swim training and needed some energy, fast. After devouring several Hebrew National hotdogs each -- with relish -- we were still ravenous.

So I started poking around the pantry and soon found a box of Arborio rice. I was at once excited and concerned. Was the rice too old? Did I have enough butter, fresh herbs, white wine, chicken stock and cheese?

I've learned the hard way that one shouldn't attempt to make risotto without the proper ingredients -- last summer I made risotto for a friend without chicken stock, thinking that wine (actually, Martini and Rossi white vermouth) would be enough on its own. Boy, was I wrong. Let's just say that to that particular friend I am known as the celebrity chef who made "gummy bear risotto."

But as it turned out, I did have all the necessary ingredients on hand, and even a few surprises -- I had a piece of slab bacon in the fridge!

Slab bacon is a big hunk of cured and (often) smoked pork belly. Almost nothing adds more flavor to a dish than a few pieces of slightly chewy, sweet bacon, or lardon. Lardon is the French term for this slab bacon, cut into thick, matchstick-sized strips.

One of my favorite ways to start off a dish is to gently sweat (saute without browning) some lardon in a pan until it reveals its sweet, smoky depth -- and this risotto would not be an exception. I'd never made risotto with lardon before, so it was a bit of a risk, but in my mind's palate, it made perfect sense.

I couldn't eat only pure carbs without any protein -- thanks to my strict training diet -- so the idea of adding a few chunks of bacon seemed brilliant. I got out my favorite pan for cooking risotto, a wide, slope-sided stainless steel and porcelain saute pan. I turned on the heat and went to work. And here's what I turned out:

Bacon and Cheese Risotto

Serves: 4

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup slab bacon, cut into thick strips

½ small onion, chopped

2 teaspoons garlic, minced

1½ cups Arborio rice

1 sprig fresh rosemary

1 sprig fresh thyme

¼ cup dry white wine

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 cups chicken stock (canned is fine)

½ cup grated Gruyere cheese

1. In a wide, shallow saute pan, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter with the olive oil over low-medium heat. Add the bacon, onion and garlic and sweat them until translucent, about 5 minutes.

2. Add rice and saute for about three minutes. Add rosemary, thyme and white wine; allow to boil, then simmer until almost dry.

3. Season rice with salt and pepper, then begin adding chicken stock, a half-cup at a time; allow stock to be absorbed before each addition. After about 25 minutes, test frequently for doneness; the texture of the rice should be tender, yet toothsome and springy.

4. Stir in the Gruyere cheese and remaining tablespoon butter; season with additional salt and pepper, if desired. Serve hot, and follow with a 20-mile uphill bike ride.

P.S. I did survive my first triathlon and finished all three legs in 2 hours 26 minutes. Yes, it was brutal -- but completely worth it.

For more info on Rocco DiSpirito, please visit

roccodispirito.com or

click here to find his cookbooks.

Note

: Rocco is shooting his new TV show, and he's looking for people with a dramatic situation in their lives involving food. Worried about that engagement dinner with your picky mother-in-law? Trying to win back that ex-girlfriend who's still mad at you for cheating on her? Trying to bury the hatchet with that outcast uncle at your family reunion cookout? Rocco wants to help you! Please

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Rocco DiSpirito was born and raised in Jamaica, Queens. His culinary experience and love of "the good life" through cooking and dining began at age 11 in his mother Nicolina's kitchen. By the age of 16, DiSpirito entered the Culinary Institute of America, graduating with honors in 1986. DiSpirito's career highlights include opening Union Pacific in New York City's Gramercy Park as chef and owner in 1997, being awarded three stars from the New York Times in a 1998 review, and three more in 2002 from the New York Observer. DiSpirito was also named Food & Wine's Best New Chef in 1999, and "America's Most Exciting Young Chef" by Gourmet magazine in 2000; his show "The Restaurant" first aired on NBC in 2003. DiSpirito is the author of three cookbooks: Flavor, Rocco's Italian American, and

Rocco's 5 Minute Flavor.