Red radicchio is a member of the chicory family. It grows spontaneously throughout the Mediterranean area and beyond, and is prized by foraging Italians.
Cultivation probably tamed some of the wildness out of the plant. But, according to culinary historian Giuseppe Maffioli, modern red radicchio was developed south of Treviso in the late 1860s. Its creator was Belgian garden consultant Francesco Van den Borre, who was hired to design the garden of Villa Palazzi in the then-fashionable English style.
He was most likely familiar with the Belgian blanching-sprouting technique used on endive. Son Aldo followed in his father's footsteps, and by the end of the 1800s, methods of cultivating red radicchio were being promoted by a local agricultural association.
In Northern Italy, in the Veneto region, the towns of Chioggia, Verona, Castelfranco and Treviso have each developed distinct varieties of red radicchio that have taken on the town names.
Chioggia is a tight, purple-red ball aswirl with bulging white veins. Verona is small, loose-leaved, soft and ovoid. Castelfranco looks more like a yellowish-green ball of tender lettuce with red flecks.
Veneto's entry in the Gastronomic Hall of Fame is Treviso red radicchio - bittersweet, expensive and seasonal. It is exposed to a complicated forcing- blanching-sprouting technique that results in elongated, sun-starved spears of purple-red with a pearly white central rib, held together by a pointed, peeled root.
If there were a vegetable-rights movement, Treviso growers would surely be accused of cruelty. Selected seeds are planted in early summer, and green-red leafed heads are harvested in the fall with their root systems intact. They are packed tightly and kept in long furrows in a plastic tunnel. Then they are transferred to low cement pools covered with plastic; roots absorb warm spring water, and the plants begin to sprout.
Looking the worse for wear, with unattractive rotting outer leaves and a long, hairy taproot, the plants are moved indoors to a warm, moist environment. They are left to drain on sawdust for a few days, which forces the development of the new sprouts even more.
When this stage is complete, plants are trimmed of their rotten outer leaves to expose the heart that has sprouted in the center - the tender, etiolated white and red leaves. The hairy taproot is cleaned up and carved to one-third the length of the red radicchio head, and the trimmed, shaved Treviso is rinsed and crated, ready for market.
Clearly this is not a practical procedure, which is why forced Treviso radicchio sells for twice as much as easier-to-grow varieties. And it's not a simple business to jump into - first-rate seeds are difficult to obtain.
Most forced Treviso red radicchio is sold regionally, although fancy greengrocers throughout Italy often carry it. Outside Northern Italy, it's easier to find Chioggia, Verona or unforced Treviso, and these are the selections that are grown in or imported to the United States.
Radicchio isn't easy to grow, but Shepherd's Garden Seeds in Connecticut (phone 203-482-3638) offers five kinds for sale - and no forcing is necessary, even for the Treviso. You can start your own selective breeding program.
If no red radicchio is available in your market and you can't garden, the recipes that follow can be prepared with Belgian endive, which has undergone a similar forcing regimen.
Or use a combination of Belgian endive and red radicchio to get more of the bittersweet, crispy sprout sensation of Treviso.
The best, easiest way to cook red radicchio?
The basic recipe dresses it with a few drops of extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper and roasts it in the oven, or cooks it on a grill or in a nonstick pan or griddle - not until crunchy or wilted or still red, but until really cooked and tender.
The dry heat of a hot oven or grill will brown and crisp the outer leaves, while a nonstick pan will brown and soften them - both methods slightly caramelize the leaves. The radicchio heart will be soft, well-done and almost creamy with lengthy cooking, its flavor balance more bitter than sweet.
This delicious basic recipe calls for minimal ingredients, a mere half-hour cooking time, and a single pan. No fuss, no cholesterol, few calories, very low fat.
GRILLED OR ROASTED RADICCHIO
1 medium radicchio head
1 1/2 teaspoons (or more) extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
If grilling or pan-roasting radicchio, cut head into quarters (or Belgian endive in half lengthwise), cutting through heart to keep sections from falling apart. Wash and dry carefully. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.
Grill over low heat (charcoal, wood or gas) 10 minutes per side until all sides are brown. Or cook in nonstick pan or griddle over medium-low heat 10 minutes per side.
If oven-roasting, sprinkle whole radicchio head with 1/2 teaspoon olive oil. Place on baking sheet and roast at 400 degrees until tender, 10 to 15 minutes.
Remove from heat and sprinkle with remaining 1 teaspoon olive oil. Makes three servings.
RADICCHIO IN MARINADE
2 tablespoons raisins
2 tablespoons vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, sliced
2 tablespoons pine nuts or coarsely chopped walnuts
4 radicchio heads, quartered and roasted (see recipe above)
Soak raisins in vinegar and set aside.
Heat olive oil in skillet. Add onions and saute until wilted but not browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Add reserved vinegar and raisins and cook 1 or 2 minutes to reduce liquid. Add pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper. In a deep glass bowl, layer the mixture with the roasted radicchio quarters, beginning and ending with onion slices. Cover and marinate overnight in refrigerator. Makes 12 servings.
No tomatoes, no ricotta, no mozzarella? What kind of lasagna could this be? Well, it's delicate, creamy with no cream and lighter than multiple-cheese lasagna. It also has sweet and nutty Parmesan taste contrasting with the adults-only flavor of radicchio. It's a perfect party dish that can be assembled and baked at the last minute.
6 radicchio heads
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound lasagna pasta, preferably fresh
1/4 cup butter or olive oil
1/4 cup flour
3 cups hot milk
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Split radicchio heads in half. Place cut-side down and slice into strips. Add strips to large skillet and toss lightly with a little olive oil. Saute over medium heat 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Bring large pan of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook about half the time recommended on the package. (If using fresh pasta, cook 1 or 2 minutes. Bear in mind that pasta, fresh or dry, will complete cooking in the oven.) Drain pasta and place strips on cloth towel to dry.
Make a bechamel sauce: Heat butter in skillet, whisk in flour and stir over low heat without browning, 2 to 3 minutes. Gradually add hot milk, whisking constantly to produce a smooth sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
Oil or butter a 9-by-12-inch baking dish. Spread a few spoonfuls of bechamel sauce on bottom of dish. Cover completely with layer of pasta and top with one-fourth of cooked radicchio and one-fourth of bechamel sauce. Sprinkle with one-fourth of cheese. Keep repeating process, layering pasta, radicchio, bechamel and cheese, ending with cheese.
Bake at 400 degrees until golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool 10 minutes before serving (this allows pasta and sauce to settle and lasagna to be easily sliced). Makes six to eight servings.
This is a classic Veneto risotto, rice bonding with butter or oil to thicken a sauce created by melting a chopped vegetable in broth. Frequent stirring is a must.
At the last moment, butter and Parmesan cheese are whipped in, a final frenzy of enrichment that adds a creamy quality to risotto. The consistency should be of just-cooked oatmeal, thickened just enough to slowly slide across a tipped plate. A spoon won't stand up in it.
First-rate rice will result in the best risotto. Arborio rice is the best.
RISOTTO WITH RADICCHIO
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
1 radicchio head, coarsely chopped (or Belgian endive)
1 cup arborio rice
1/4 cup white wine
4 to 5 cups lightly salted boiling water or light stock
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon brandy
Place 2 tablespoons olive oil and onion in pan over medium-low heat and cook until onion is transparent, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in radicchio until coated with oil and cook 10 minutes over medium heat to wilt. Add rice and
stir to coat with oil. Cook 2 to 3 minutes. Add wine and cook until evaporated, 3 to 5 minutes.
Add 1 cup boiling water and cook until absorbed but still soupy, not dry, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. (Some cooks stir with a wooden fork, others opt for a wooden spoon.) Repeat process twice more. After 3 cups, add water 1/2 cup at a time.
Continue stirring and adding boiling liquid until rice is cooked, firm but without a white starchy center, 20 to 28 minutes total. Tasting is the only way to know. Consistency should be soupy because adding the remaining ingredients will tighten up the risotto.
Remove pan from heat and vigorously beat in cheese, butter and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Fierce beating is important for success. Add brandy and beat 30 seconds. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes two to four servings.