Saturday, January 24, 2009

Embracing the bitter: putting radicchio on center stage

Radicchio makes a supporting appearance in most salad mixes as a color counterpoint and additional flavor component, but rarely has a starring role. Some reasons for this are probably related to its bitterness, unavailability, high price and the idea that salad greens shouldn't be cooked. But it's actually a very flexible vegetable — a 1997 article in Saveur (No. 23) mentions an Italian cookbook with over 600 recipes for radicchio, including dessert.

Perhaps as a pseudo-homeopathic cure to a personally challenging 2008, I've been seeking radicchio lately, eating it on its own as a hot side dish, using it in pasta, and as a cold salad. Deborah Madison's epic tome, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, has a recipe for seared radicchio which I've posted in an adapted version below. It's a nice combination of smokiness and bitterness. A recipe from Saveur is also a good way to experience radicchio at nearly full power. Wedges of the scarlet leaves are blanched in a bath of vinegar, water, bay leaf and black peppercorns for about a minute. After draining well, they are tossed with a generous amount of olive oil and refrigerated overnight. A garnish of hard boiled egg or parmesan cheese is all they need before serving. The blanching extracts some of the bitterness, yet leaves a salad that is bracing.

The other night I need something starchy to go with a parmesan custard and vegetable salad, so I threw together pasta with garlic and radicchio. Here's a rough recipe:
Bring a pot of salted water to boil and get out some pasta (I used ditalini because they were in my pasta pantry). Add the pasta to the water so that it will be done about a minute after the garlic is soft (you'll want to scoop the pasta directly from the cooking water into the skillet).

In a medium skillet, slowly cook a few cloves of minced garlic in a lot of olive oil over low heat (if it looks like the garlic will be cooked before the pasta is ready, remove it from the heat). Chop some radicchio into strips. Rinse and dry it. A minute before the pasta is done, add the radicchio to the garlic and oil.

Scoop or carry the pasta from the water into the skillet. Toss well and adjust salt and pepper.
Garnish with freshly grated parmesan and toasted walnuts or pine nuts.

It's not the most elegant pasta dish in the universe, but was quick and satisfying.



Recipe: Seared Radicchio
Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Several small, compact heads of radicchio
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
A well-seasoned cast iron skillet, griddle or grill*

Cut the heads of radicchio into wedges that are about 2" tall on the outer edge. Cutting through the core can help to keep the wedges intact. Reserve any leaves that fall off for a salad or to add to the hot pan near the end.

Generously brush both sides of each wedge with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Allow to marinate for about 30 minutes, turning now and then to redistribute the oil.

Turn the heat under the skillet to medium-high. Allow it to heat up for a few minutes -- you want a very hot pan for the searing. Place the wedges of radicchio in the hot pan in a single layer. After a few minutes, turn them over to cook the other side for a few minutes.  In the last minute or two of the process you can add any leaves that fell off while cutting the head into wedges.

Garnish with additional olive oil, thin slivers of cheese (parmesan, ricotta salata, aged pecorino), or perhaps a dash of balsamic vinegar.

* Uncoated pans made of other materials like anodized aluminum or stainless steel might also work well. Non-stick pans are not recommended because high heat is used.


Photo of radicchio taken by a friend of my family at the Campo dei Fiori market in Rome.


Random link from the archive: Laksa, Part 1
Technorati tags: vegetarian : Food

4 comments:

Rachelle said...

If you haven't done it yet, you should definitely try grilled radicchio. Its my go-to vegetable and is good at every temperature and with just about everything. Olive oil, salt and pepper is all you need. Enjoy!

Anonymous said...

You guys in the USA should know that in Italy we've got more than 20 different varieties of Radicchio (which is called Chicory in English, in fact).

Not all of the radicchio is red, there are green varieties and not all of it is suitable for cooking. In fact, many varieties are delicious when eaten raw.

The picture in the blog, shows the variety Chioggia (radicchio varieties are known by the names of, mostly North-eastern, Italian towns). Though cookable, this is also very good eaten raw (when fresh... my favourite is with a hard boiled egg, a bit of onion and freshly simmered pinto beans, seasoned with wine white vinegar---don't spoil it with sugary "balsamic" please!---and olive oil).

The variety of Radicchio that you really want to cook, is the Treviso. If you're lucky you may find this in the USA too. Compared to the Chioggia, this has slender long rib leaves. I love it when grilled on a barbeque, with other vegetables such as eggplant, pepers and onion. It also make a powerful risotto (if you've got no culinary restrictions, you should add non-flavoured pork sausages, or failing that, fresh salted bacon, to that).

The Castelfranco and Trieste varieties are very good as green salad bases (with *either* tomato *or* eggs). In Trieste, the green variety is eaten in salad with pinto beans.

Anonymous said...

In Italy, WW2 is referred to as "chicory times" when coffee was a long forsaken luxury and people roasted the radicchio roots to make a beverage similar to coffee in color and bitterness. It was sometime mixed with barley (caffé d'orzo). I've never tasted it, but I fondly remember my grandma mentioning it sometime when we drank (real) coffee.

Anonymous said...

Another pop-cultural note: in Trieste (a town known for its colorful vernacular) when someone dies, people affectionately say that one goes pushing the radicchio (meaning that you literally make it grow by pushing it from below).

I think the reason is that radicchio is a very tenacious weed, even if you cut it completely it will regrow, it withstands severe frost and it can grow in the winter... so there must be someone hidden taking care of it.