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February, 2012

Reconnecting with Radicchio

By Dennis Linden

Radicchio (pronounced ruh-deek-kee-o) is a botanical relative of the Belgian endive and, in fact, is grown under similar conditions that produce its wine-red leaves and pure white veins, namely the absence of light
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Radicchio

Recently, I was shopping the aisles of my local market’s produce department looking for something different in salad fixings other than the usual suspects of greens and a dressing. I was in “Impulse Buy” mode as I cased the colorful displays of fruits and veggies, waiting for that perfect something to present itself. Then I spotted the radicchio and my menu plan quickly added a hot grill, some olive oil, a dash of balsamic, salt & pepper and some freshly-grated Parmesan for garnish! It had been a while since radicchio entered my culinary radar; an omission I vow to correct, as the vegetable is such a tasty change of pace from regular lettuces. Plus, the vegetable is superior in healthy nutrients, has an interesting history and a very unique growing process just to get it to market.

Radicchio (pronounced ruh-deek-kee-o) is a botanical relative of the Belgian endive and, in fact, is grown under similar conditions that produce its wine-red leaves and pure white veins, namely the absence of light. There is mention of radicchio as a trusted herbal remedy for digestion and culinary specialty going back to the early Romans. Back then it was picked wild and described in ancient texts as being more leafy green with a distinct red outline compared to the brilliantly colored, tight heads of today’s cultivated varieties. Though radicchio is now grown successfully in the U.S. and Chile, the vegetable’s roots are native to the rich soils of Italy; especially the countryside around Venice, which has been considered the “champagne” of radicchio crops for centuries.

Radicchio’s long history of popularity in the Mediterranean region was very much due to the plant’s heartiness and ability to reconstitute itself before there was refrigeration. Once the Italians did start to raise it as a food crop, radicchio harvests could be stored dry in large tubs then re-hydrated by immersing in water to bring the dried out heads back to life. Many years ago, before radicchio was popular in the mass market, I visited a wholesaler in New Jersey who brought in radicchio by boat from the old country strictly for the niche-market Italian community in nearby NYC. After more than 20 days at sea, the heads were then soaked in tubs of brine stored in dark rooms; a process the proprietor’s ancestors had been doing for centuries! Today, that same durability allows for a year-round supply on a much larger scale because the Chilean crop can survive the cost-efficient sea voyage from field to fork with no spoilage and plenty of shelf-life left for the retailer and the consumer.

There are two very different looking varieties of radicchio that are most common in the marketplace. Radicchio Rosso di Chioggia, the most familiar to shoppers, resembles a small head of red cabbage and radicchio di Treviso that looks a bit like a red version of romaine or Belgian Endive. Both have a spicy, slightly bitter flavor and a cabbage-like texture; the Treviso is milder than the Rosso. A good preparation tip: submerge the radicchio in ice water for 1 hour to remove some bitterness.

Belgian EndiveThe familial connection to endive extends to how this uniquely-colored veggie is grown too. In the 1860s, a Belgian agronomist applied the same techniques used to whiten Belgian endive to the radicchio plants grown around Treviso. The process, which is called imbianchimento, entails harvesting the plants from the fields in the fall, including the roots, when they are cabbage-like in color and leafy appearance. The heads are trimmed and then stored in darkness while the roots are continually bathed in circulating water. It is during this stage that the chlorophyll dissipates from the plant and the leaves take on their rich maroon color while their veins bleach to a vibrant white.

Radicchio is packed with so much more nutritional value than the lettuces that it is really unfair to compare. Like all chicory, radicchio is very diabetic-friendly; the vegetable contains a substance called inulin, which naturally helps to regulate blood sugar levels. The dark red color denotes a high concentration of antioxidants that contribute greatly to the health of blood vessels; antioxidants also help to lower blood pressure and prevent heart disease as well as certain types of cancer. Radicchio is also a very good source of vitamins A and C. Plus the vegetable’s rich coloring gives an almost regal flare to any plate!

Speaking of plates, my impulsive grilled radicchio was as delicious as it was simple. In fact, that dish has since put me on a kind of taste-testing radicchio jag that has included trying five of the six tasty recipes that are offered at the bottom of this site’s radicchio product listing. Hmm, think I’ll make a quick trip to the market!