PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA
Bitter and beautiful, learn how to use these stunning vegetables
On a trip to Italy long ago, I was marveling as a man with strong, weathered hands made short work of trimming artichokes to expose their meaty little heart, when my eyes caught the most beautifully colored vegetables I had ever seen. These odd-shaped aliens in all colors and sizes were various kinds of radicchios and chicories. Some had long magenta fingers with bright, white ribs, some were tender and faint yellow with hot pink speckles and others were yellow with splashes of red. My favorite was a gorgeous light pink color I had never seen in a vegetable before.
Until then, I wasn’t aware of more than one type of radicchio— Chioggia, the round burgundy variety with white ribs. Most people still only know it as the bitter leaf typically found chopped in pre-washed salad mixes, adding depth, color and texture to soft lettuce leaves.
Radicchio is in the chicory family (Cichorium intybus), which also includes dandelion greens, frisée, endives and what is commonly grown for a coffee substitute, digestive bitters, or as an ingredient in brewing— chicory root. All chicories are somewhat bitter, which makes them great companions for acidic vinegars and lemon juice, as well as a foil for sweets like fruit and candied nuts.
Fats like olive oil or bacon fat and protein such as anchovies, pancetta or chicken and strong, salty cheeses are perfect additions to radicchio, striking a good balance on the taste buds. My favorite way to eat radicchio is to chop it up and add to a quiche or tart with sweet potatoes or butternut squash chunks and fresh tarragon. The more cream and fewer eggs you use, the more decadent it is. The addition of Gorgonzola or blue cheese makes it even more amazing.
Radicchios are as delicious cooked as they are raw in salads. They can be sautéed and grilled, braised, barbecued, turned into tapenades, cooked alongside pork chops or inside a whole chicken, folded into risottos and pasta or chopped finely on top of pizzas and they are surprisingly good in pastries and cakes.
OLD WORLD HERITAGE
Cultivation began in the 15th century in the Veneto region of Italy. Each variety of radicchio is named after the town in northeastern Italy where it originated. Radicchio started being grown commercially in California in 1981, which surely pleased Italian immigrants in the Monterey Bay area.
Open pollinated, heirloom seed results in many strains of radicchios grown in Italy. However the four main varieties grown on the Central Coast are:
Chioggia – This most common type of radicchio is round with a tight head, white ribs and dark maroon leaves and is about the size of a large grapefruit. The white ribs of radicchio contain the strongest bitter flavor and this one has some of the thickest ribs, which is why this radicchio is best cooked to sweeten the flavor. Try cutting into chunks, coating with olive oil, sprinkling with balsamic vinegar, salt and fresh thyme and roasting in the oven. It is available year-round from Salinas grower-shipper Royal Rose, but smaller farms typically plant in the fall so that a tight head forms naturally in the colder months. Radicchio can be found at farmers’ markets in winter through spring.
Treviso – This elongated variety looks a bit like red romaine except for the bright white ribs. Treviso is milder than Chioggia and has a softer texture that makes it great for salads. It also can be made into gratins by chopping and tossing with olive oil and Parmesan or Gruyère cheese. In Italy, Treviso is grilled as an alternative to steak, an interesting swap for those vegans in your life.
Tardivo – This variety comes from forcing growth of Treviso after the first harvest when what is left is the root in the ground, causing more flavorful growth.
This complicated growing technique is also called fiori d’Inverno or “winter flower” because it causes the plant to grow mostly crisp, with white ribs, tinged with burgundy and lime green colors, which look like long fingers. Tardivo consists of mainly white ribs that are more hearty and crisp and of course more bitter than the original plant. Tardivo is great sautéed with shallots as a side dish with olive oil. Consider adding some olive tapenade, Asiago cheese, segments of sweet mandarins and pop it on top of creamy polenta.
Castelfranco – This variety is very tender and looks somewhat like a butter lettuce crossed with a rose, making it the gateway radicchio. The leaf color varies from creamy yellow to almost white to green and light pink, however, all have specks of red. This variety is the most mellow, sweetest type of radicchio, although it is still somewhat bitter. Use this variety in salads or as an appetizer, cupping a smidge of something delicious like pears and goat cheese.
Veneto di Rosa – This variety is bubble gum pink in color with white ribs that are pleasantly sweet. The leaves are the most mild of all the varieties and have a floral element. It is rare to find a vegetable of such a color that is as delicious as it is gorgeous. In a salad, the color sets off the other ingredients, while the flavor rounds out sweetness or richness of cheese. I recently made what I called a “desert salad” using the Rosa variety, adding goat cheese, ginger and maple candied walnuts, raspberries, mandarin slices and some spinach leaves. I can’t get enough of the Rosa variety—my next salad will be a gorgeous pink wedge with blue cheese!
After my visit to Italy, I was motivated to grow a few open pollinated varieties of radicchio. The bitter greens did not sell very well for me at the farmers’ markets, and the restaurants I sold to didn’t need enough to make it worthwhile, so I stopped growing them. But Watsonville organic farmer Joe Schirmer of Dirty Girl Produce has a perfect location for the cool weather crop as well as a strong market for them. Even with restaurants closed due to COVID, he is able to sell significant quantities to culinary savvy customers at the farmers’ market. He currently grows three kinds of radicchio on his farm, Chioggia and Treviso, and occasionally Castelfranco. Other varieties he grows—Pan di Zucchero and Puntarelle—are technically chicories and only available in fall. One of the problems Schirmer has growing radicchios, besides rabbits wanting to eat them, is that market customers often buy radicchio thinking it is cabbage or lettuce and come back saying that it was the worst cabbage or lettuce they have ever tasted!
Schirmer loves radicchio both as a farmer and as a cook; he appreciates it in his winter crop rotation, even if it is a “moody” plant to grow. His favorite way to eat it is simple: He cuts it in half, coats it in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and roasts it in the oven at 350° F until the tips blacken. Cooking it sweetens the bitterness. His kids say their favorite part is the yummy “nugget” where the leaves grow out at the base of the head.
Radicchio is fickle if not grown during the time of the year it prefers. It is happy when planted in fall and harvested through the winter and spring. In this way there is time to form a head naturally. If growing open pollinated, heirloom varieties from Italian seed companies like Franchi or Levantia, it is crucial you plant at the proper time. There are some hybrid varieties that can be grown year-round, but the seed is expensive and perfect growing conditions are required to get a good crop.
Radicchio can be direct seeded into the garden, covered lightly with soil, and once it emerges, thinned to a spacing of 8 inches apart. Radicchio seeds germinate best at 75° so depending on the microclimate, it might be best to sow some seeds in the greenhouse first. Space plants 8 inches apart and in rows 12 inches apart. Keep soil moist so that it stays cool. If the soil dries out, radicchio gets more bitter. It takes 90 days from seed to harvest. Harvest with a sharp lettuce knife at the base of the plant when plants look full and seem heavy.
TO YOUR HEALTH
The reddish purple pigment in radicchio makes it an antioxidant superfood, in the same category as blueberries. Better yet, radicchio has no sugar whereas berries do, so you get those prized anthocyanin nutrients said to ward off cancer and heart disease, without increasing your blood sugar. Bitter vegetables in general stimulate digestion by increasing saliva which thereby increases digestive enzymes. Bitters also trigger the production of stomach acid, which may lead to improving the absorption of food.
These compounds as well as the significant amount of fiber in radicchio are also good food for your gut bacteria, and we know that the gut affects our mood so best to keep our good microbes happily fed. If that weren’t enough to convince you to eat radicchio, it also contains loads of calcium and vitamins K, C and E. When buying, look for radicchio that feels heavy for its size with robust, brightly colored leaves. Be sure it has a tight head that is not too small or too light. That means it is old and the leaves have been trimmed and peeled back many times to keep the heads looking good enough to sell.
Store your radicchio in the coldest part of your refrigerator in a bag with the air removed and closed well. As radicchio ages, it gets more bitter but don’t fret. If you want to remove some of the bitterness, cut and soak in water, rinse and drain well before eating or cooking.
Radicchio Salad with Citrus Vinaigrette
Courtesy Ben Spungin, chef-partner, Alta Bakery + Cafe in Monterey
Alta Bakery + Cafe in Monterey has a radicchio salad on the menu that showcases its bitter flavor by pairing it with apples, candied walnuts and lots of shaved Parmigiana-Reggiano. Spungin says he loves the bitterness of radicchio and is excited to be able use it more—blanched, grilled and roasted—once his upcoming restaurant, Cella, opens across the courtyard in the charming Cooper Molera Adobe.
LOCAL FOODS IN SEASON
MARCH, APRIL AND MAY
Apricots* • Avocados • Blackberries* • Cactus Pears* • Grapefruit** • Kumquats** • Lemons • Limes** • Mandarins** • Oranges • Pomelos** Rhubarb** • Strawberries
Artichokes • Arugula • Asparagus • Beets • Bok Choy • Broccoli • Broccoli Raab • Brussels Sprouts • Burdock • Cabbage • Cardoons • Carrots Cauliflower • Celeriac* • Celery* • Chard • Chicory • Collards • Cress • Dandelion • Endive • Fava Beans and Greens • Fennel • Garlic • Horseradish • Kale • Kohlrabi • Leeks • Mushrooms • Mustard Greens • Nettles • Onions • Orach • Parsnips • Peas** • Pea Shoots • Potatoes • Radishes • Rutabagas** • Shallots • Spinach • Sprouts • Squash • Sunchokes • Turnips
Abalone • Crab, Dungeness • Grenadier, Pacific • Halibut, California* • Lingcod, Pacific • Rock Cod, aka Snapper or Rockfish • Sablefish, aka Black Cod • Salmon, King • Sanddabs, Pacific • Seabass, White Sole (Dover and Petrale) • Spot Prawns • Squid
- May only ** March and April only ***April and May only
All fish listed are rated “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and are found in abundance in local waters. See www.seafoodwatch.org for more information