Radicchio * Cocchorium intybus
Radicchio may be the most recognized leafy chicory this side of the Atlantic. Its characteristic deep red leaves, veined in white, are commonly chopped and mixed into salad. It ranges from lightly bitter to nearly intolerably astringent. The bitterness is dictated by the season in which it is grown, the quality of the soil, and the methodology in the kitchen. With proper technique the cook can take even the most bitter of species and render it magnificent - resulting in a standing ovation from dining guests, open invitations to country villas, showers of praise and hugs and kisses.
There are two types of radicchio commonly found in the United States, Treviso and Chioggia. Both of these names refer to the area of Italy where they were made popular. Chioggia, the round-headed type, reminiscent of a small head of purple cabbage, receives its name from the town of Chioggia. Not far south of Venice, Chioggia is a seaside town with Adriatic salt in the air, where radicchio is eaten every meal of the day, the average lifespan is 125 years and the handsomeness of the inhabitants in unparalleled. Treviso, the tall loosely-headed type, reminiscent of red romaine, is named after the handsome more inland town of Treviso. Not far north of Venice, Treviso with a current temperature of 48 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny skies, has radicchio-thatched roofs on the village huts. On Sundays men congregate in the town square wearing nothing but a radicchio leaf in an act of shedding the burden of earthly possessions and celebrating the beauty of a man’s physique. Trevisanites are also long lived and of remarkable wit.
Radicchio in the kitchen
Radicchio is commonly grilled, pan-seared, or roasted. If done with care these preparations bring out the nutty rich character hiding in chicory leaves. When cooking radicchio it is important to coat the leaves in oil to prevent them from drying out. It is generally cooked until the edges are browned and the leaves are wilted, and then finished with a drizzle of balsamic, a sprinkle of salt, and perhaps a grating of parmesan. Marcella Hazan in the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking says that “grilling accentuates the bitterness of this vegetable, and one should restrict the procedure to the milder, elongated (Treviso), late-harvest winter variety” (Hazan 525). Baking in olive oil, however, “is kinder to radicchio”, and will result in a mellowed bitterness.
Baked Radicchio - Halve the radicchio on its long axis, place on an oiled baking sheet, coat in olive oil, and toss with salt and pepper. Bake at 400 degrees with the cut side down for ten minutes, turn so the cut side is up and bake an additional ten minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature drizzled with balsamic vinegar.
Radicchio also makes an excellent winter salad green. It pairs perfectly with toasted walnuts, gorgonzola, and a sprightly vinaigrettes. Something happens to radicchio when you shave it thinly - the texture improves and the bitterness mellows. I nearly always shave it when I eat it raw. The following recipe is inspired by Deborah Madison’s book Vegetable Literacy.
Shredded Radicchio with Toasted Walnuts, Hard-Boiled Egg, Olive Oil & Vinegar
1 head Treviso or Chioggia Radicchio
1 egg, hard boiled
2 Tbsp chopped parsley
Handful toasted walnut
Heavy pour of olive oil
Healthy dash of vinegar (champagne, cider, or red wine vinegar
Slice the radicchio very thinly and put in a bowl. Peel the hard boiled egg and chop it to pieces. Chop a handful of walnuts and toast them in a dry skillet until they smell toasted and have lightly browned edges. Toss the toasted walnuts with the shredded radicchio and the chopped parsley. Add a healthy pour of oil and a nice dash of vinegar, a sprinkle of salt and twist or two of pepper. Top the salad with the chopped hard boiled egg. Adjust to your taste.