Ingredients

Radicchio

General Description: Radicchio (Cichorium intybus) belongs to the chicory family. Radicchio started out as a form of wild chicory on the plains of Venice, still the largest production area. Radicchio looks like a small red lettuce. It’s more fibrous than its cousins escarole and endive. Modern radicchio, with its rich wine-red leaves with white ribs, was developed in the 1860s by applying complex techniques similar to those used to force Belgian endive.

Radicchio has a distinctive, bitter flavor due to intybin, which stimulates the appetite and digestive system. Americans mostly know radicchio as the red leaves in their salad mix. Italians know that radicchio is superb cooked, whether grilled or simmered in risotto-although the gorgeous color turns to rich brown in the cooking process. There are five main varieties of radicchio, each named for its growing region in Italy.

Radicchio rosso di Chioggia is by far the most common. It resembles a compact though lightweight head of cabbage with dark red leaves and white ribs, pronounced bitterness, and fibrous texture. Radicchio rosso di Treviso comes in two varieties: precoce (early) and tardivo (late). Precoce, which is known simply as Treviso when grown in the U.S., has narrow, pointed, fleshy leaves and forms a compact bunch shaped like a tapered head of romaine. Tardivo has much more pronounced pearly ribs, thin splayed leaves that resemble exotic feathers, and deep red color on the edges. Tardivo is flavorful, with strong bitter accents.

Radicchio variegato di Castelfranco resembles a head of butter lettuce with deep wine-red speckles on an eggshell background. Also known as the edible flower, it’s a cross between radicchio and round-headed endive and is mild in flavor and tender in texture. Radicchio di Verona, which is uncommon in the U.S., has burgundy red leaves with white ribs. It grows in a small, loose head resembling an elongated butterhead lettuce with tender but firm leaves with a slightly bitter flavor.

Season: Italian radicchio appears in the markets in late November, remaining throughout the winter. It is at its best after the frost. In California, radicchio is a year-round crop, with a peak season from midwinter to early spring.

Purchase: Choose heads that have crisp, full-colored leaves. Buy radicchio from a market that sells it quickly. Radicchio is generally fairly expensive, but a little goes a long way if used in a salad.

Avoid: Avoid radicchio with brown or wilted leaves.

Storage: Store radicchio in a plastic bag in the crisper of your refrigerator. It will keep for a couple of days.

Preparation:

  1. Trim off the bottom stem and prepare as you would lettuce. Cut out the core in a cone.
  2. If the radicchio has a root, trim it off, but don’t discard. Use it as you would a radish or other root vegetable.
  3. If the leaves look wilted, soak them in a bowl of cold water to revive. Otherwise, radicchio generally does not need washing.

Serving Suggestions: Use whole large outer leaves as a shell to hold chicken, tuna, or seafood salad. Cut into wedges, toss with olive oil, top with cheese (such as smoked mozzarella) and broil till the red turns reddish brown. Combine fresh, cooked cranberry beans, preferably while warm, with red wine vinegar, olive oil, chopped oil-cured black olives, and shredded radicchio. Make a radicchio risotto, adding shredded leaves near the end of cooking.

Flavor Affinities: Butter, fresh shell beans, Italian cheeses, lemon, olive oil, prosciutto, red onions, salami, vinegar.

from Quirk Books: www.quirkbooks.com