Head for the salad section of any good grocery store, and you’ll likely find burgundy globes of radicchio next to the tender greens and fresh herbs. Such shelving makes perfect sense during the summer, when nothing beats a chilled salad on a hot day. But come winter, those ruby-hued heads really should be displayed next to the other cold-weather greens, such as kale, mustard, and collard greens. I like my radicchio raw and slightly bitter in the summer, but cooked to sweet softness in the winter.
Chicories (Cichorium intybus) are members of the Compositae family. Along with radicchio, the chicories include endive (Belgian and curly), escarole, dandelion, and puntarelle. They all share that trademark bitter “bite,” which is why they’re often served mixed in small quantities with other foods. You’re probably most familiar with radicchio as the leaves added to mesclun salad mix for crunch, bitterness, and vivid red-and-white color.
Very low in calories, radicchio is an excellent source of vitamin K and offers a surprisingly potent dose of antioxidants. The baseball-size Chioggia and elongated Treviso are the most common varieties of radicchio, but keep an eye out for the loose-leafed Tardivo, the variegated pink-and-carmine Lusia, and the tender-leafed ivory-and-red-flecked Castelfranco.
Most of these varieties are named after the northern Italian towns where they originated. Here in the States, we can thank Italian farmers Lucio Gomiero and Carlo Boscolo for bringing their foresight and knowledge to central California’s Salinas Valley, where they planted radicchio, introduced Americans to the plant, and now grow the most radicchio in the world under the name of Royal Rose.
Radicchio can be tough to grow, but it’s easy to work with in the kitchen. Regardless of the variety, select heads that feel heavy for their size; avoid ones with brown spots on the leaves. (Also avoid very small heads, a sign that they’re old and have been tirelessly trimmed by produce staff.) Keep the heads lightly wrapped in a barely damp cloth or paper towel, and loosely store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to a few days.
Adding raw radicchio to salads, using leaves as edible cups, and sprinkling it shaved on top of pizza before cooking are all easy ways to incorporate radicchio into your diet. Raw radicchio holds its own against full-flavored garnishes such as nuts, cheese, and smoked meats, as well as acids such as balsamic vinegar.
Roasting and braising radicchio, however, mellows its flavor. Add a quartered head to a roasting chicken, pork shoulder, or lamb leg, or simply braise radicchio on its own, covered, with a splash of wine and olive oil. The warm leaves will make winter taste all the sweeter.
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