Friday, February 25, 2005

A Great Red Head -- Radicchio, That Is

Southern California, apart from what the song said about it never raining, has been inundated with rain recently. This is NOT a good thing for an inveterate ingredient sleuth. Whenever my thoughts turned to outdoor markets last week, they were quickly whisked away by the pitter-patter -- make that hammer-clatter -- of rain against the windows. Sigh -- I realize that this moaning about a little rain preventing outdoor marketing in February will fall on deaf ears in most winter-y parts of the world.

Not to be kept from the sleuthing at hand, however, I grabbed my trusty Totes raincoat and off to my neighborhood (indoor) market I went. As I meandered through the produce aisles, I quickly fell under the spell of the shiny stacks of fruits and vegetables. They seemed to be stacked higher, richer, fuller than ever. Could it be that other Californians were less adventurous than the Ingredient Sleuth? Would they really just stay away from marketing altogether on a rainy day? Leaving all this wondrous produce just for me?

Armed with a handful of clear plastic bags, I began my selections. One after the other, each plastic bag was filled with some tasty item, then clipped shut with a crisp, white twist tie. Finally, just when I thought that the bags had "had their fill" .... there they were, glistening with dew drops (well actually, mist from the automatic sprayers, but let's not ruin the moment!), looking like baby red cabbages: radicchio!

Radicchio was bred from its chicory forebears by the ancient Egyptians. In the Middle Ages, and especially in northern Italy, it was especially popular among monks, whose vegetarian ways kept them always keen to find a new taste sensation to spice up their meals. In the 19th century, northern Italy, especially the Veneto region, excelled in the growing and culinary use of radicchio of several varieties.

The firm, little, red-cabbage look-alikes have a taste all their own. Spicy, slightly bitter, with a tangy bite, radicchio has hit the American food scene and seems here to stay. Domestic growers have taken advantage of growing conditions from northern California to Arizona to provide a crop year-round (see The tasty leaves have become a staple of those mixed-greens, European-style bagged salads that we snap up at the supermarket.

As an addition to salads and pastas, torn or shredded radicchio leaves provide a spicy bite. If preparing the leaves for use, you may wish to save the taproot base and use it as you would a radish or root vegetable; the flavor is too good to toss away, I think.

My favorite way to enjoy radicchio is roasted or grilled. I just halve or quarter the heads, leaving the firm tap-root base intact. After a quick drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and a dusting of cinnamon or nutmeg, the little red heads are ready for roasting or grilling. Just before serving, I sometimes gild the lily with a splash of sweet balsamic vinegar -- and maybe just a touch more olive oil. As an accompaniment to chicken, meat or fish, these little wonders combine beautifully with yams or sweet potatoes to provide the bitter/sweet sensation that makes my taste buds sing.

Here's hoping that you will find some tasty radicchio in a market near you. If not, you can always do what my sister did and just grow some among the flowers in your planter boxes. It will be a pretty splash of dark red foliage among your posies and a tasty treat as well.


Anonymous said...

Tried this on the grill last night and it was great. For the "sweet" item to go with it, ears of buttered corn worked perfectly. Easy and tasty idea. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Tried this on the grill last night and it was great. For the "sweet" item to go with it, ears of buttered corn worked perfectly. Easy and tasty idea. Thanks.