An ode to bitterness and radicchio

She’s sitting on her high chair, eager to join the grown-ups around her for dinner. It’s been a few weeks since I started introducing solids to her diet. I’ve opted to take a less consumerist, no-fuss, baby-led approach to her weaning. Part of this means letting her try the foods we make ourselves at lunch or dinner, minus the salt and sugar of course. Tonight, I’ve roasted some chicken and made some mash potato. There’s also a salad with some bitter red and white-veined radicchio di Chioggia leaves. Second thoughts about the appropriateness of tonight’s contorno suddenly occur to me. But, as they do, so does TB’s finger-pointing in the salad’s direction. My mother grabs an undressed leaf of the chicory and lays it on TB’s tray. My little one, clearly taken by the radicchio leaf’s vibrant colours, takes it in her chubby hands and begins examining it closely. She brings it toward her mouth. TP, mum, dad and I are quietly dreading TB’s reaction. After taking her first bite and making slow, measured, chewing motions with her mouth, her face screws up, and her lips pucker, as anticipated. A minute later, however, she surprises us by taking another bite. This time, she seems less perturbed by the flavour. Her nibbling continues until about half the leaf is left.

Perhaps I, mamma foodie, was a little overzealous in wanting to introduce a taste to TB (now TT) that’s less easily palatable so early on. Amarezza or bitterness, however, has long been a quality prized in Italian food and drink. Think of the sauteed dandelion leaves that often accompany broad bean puree in Puglia. Or the raw cardoons which the Piedmontese dip into their punchy anchovy, garlic and olive oil dip, bagna cauda. That other, closely-related thistle Italians love eating – raw and cooked – artichokes. And then, there are the digestivi Italians often conclude their meals with, such as grappa and the infectiously mentholly Fernet. The Limoncello and sickly sweet Amaretto liqueur that visitors to the country are often enamoured with are just too saccharine for many an Italian palate. Sparing her the initial shock of eating chicory, kale and other incredibly healthy bitter greens and vegetables simply didn’t make sense.

After writing about my gradual acceptance of a distinctly sweet vegetable, the pumpkin, last month, I thought it was about time to share my love of bitter foods. And, lately, my favourite source of this pillar of taste (the others being sweet, sour, salty and umami, respectively) has been the very red and white-streaked chicory from the Veneto that won over TT with its vibrant colour and acerbic flavour three autumns ago.

Until recently, I’d never thought to find out why, unlike other chicories, radicchio isn’t green. As it turns out, radicchio is subjected to an inbiancamento or blanching technique so it doesn’t turn green! Yes, that’s right. Those stunning, dark red, white-veined cespi or heads of radicchio gracing market stalls in autumn and winter are actually removed as shoots from the ground and placed in water in darkened sheds where the ensuing lack of light causes them to lose their green pigmentation.

Key to developing a palate for this bitter chicory is to accompany it with a contrasting flavour. My recipe for risotto al radicchio below, for example, could also work well with a soffritto made of finely minced sweet leek or salty pancetta. A red wine is generally preferred for the sfumatura, as opposed to white, which gives it a stark, acidic profile. A full-bodied, tannic red from the Verona area, such as Amarone della Valpolicella, gives the dish structure, not to mention, an attractive purplish-red tint, reminscent of the radicchio itself, to the final result.

As for salads, the tartness of those variegated Chioggia, Castelfranco or Treviso leaves is often balanced out by sweet condiments such as balsamic vinegar or seasonal fruits like apple and pear. My current personal favourite pairing, though, would have to be the seeds from another striking, seasonal protagonist, the pomegranate.

Radicchio, walnut and pomegranate seed salad

I may be subconsciously attracted to the symphony of reds when putting the radicchio leaves and the seeds of a juicy, freshly cut melograno or pomegranate together. Yet, there’s no denying that the sweet and sour notes of this spectacularly beautiful fruit soften the bitterness of the white-streaked maroon chicory. Some extra virgin olive oil, salt and homemade mosto cotto or balsamic vinegar are then combined to make the dressing. And, just to ensure things don’t go to the other extreme of the taste spectrum (i.e. sweet!), I like to add some sharp, recently harvested walnuts. Autumn on a plate is served!

Ingredients (serves 4 as an appetiser)

  • 2 heads radicchio (Treviso, Chioggia and Castelfranco varieties all work well)
  • a handful walnuts, shelled and roughly chopped
  • seeds of 1 small pomegranate
  • extra virgin olive oil, as needed
  • balsamic vinegar (or mosto cotto), as needed
  • fine sea salt, to taste

Method

Wash and dry the radicchio heads, discarding any outer leaves that appear wilted. Cut or tear remaining leaves into pieces and place in a large mixing bowl. Add roughly chopped walnuts, pomegranate seeds and set aside.

Combine olive oil, balsamic vinegar and fine sea salt in a jug. Mix and pour over radicchio, walnuts and pomegranate seeds. Toss salad until evenly coated with the dressing. Transfer to salad bowl or large platter and serve immediately.

Risotto al radicchio (serves 4 as a starter)

If it’s not pasta-based, then my choice of starter at lunch or dinner time is a risotto made with the seasonal vegetable du jour. In autumn and winter, that vegetable is often radicchio. A warm, comforting dish which combines two iconic ingredients from the Veneto. For best results, use a girariso, a wooden spoon with a hole, for stirring and the mantecatura (that’s when you whip the butter and cheese in) at the end. It really does make a difference!

Ingredients (serves 4 as a starter)

  • 250 – 300 g radicchio (Treviso, Chioggia or Tardivo varieties all work well)
  • half an onion, minced
  • 70 g butter
  • 320 – 380 g Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano rice
  • 125 mL red wine (Amarone della Valpolicella or another red wine from the Verona area)
  • vegetable broth, as needed
  • 50 g Parmesan or Grana Padano, freshly grated
  • salt, to taste

Method

Wash and dry the radicchio heads, removing any outer leaves that appear wilted. Halve, and if using Chioggia variety, discard the hard, white core. Cut into fine slices.

Melt 40 g of the butter over low to medium heat in a wide copper or alluminium pan. Add the minced onion and saute until softened and translucent. Next, add the radicchio slices and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often. Remove the rendered vegetables from the pan and set aside. In the same pan, add the rice, allowing it to toast for a couple of minutes, ensuring that you stir the rice often. When it starts turning opaque in colour and makes a hissing noise, increase the heat and pour in the wine. Allow it to evaporate and then stir in the onion and radicchio.

Reduce the heat and cook the risotto by adding a ladleful of boiling hot broth at a time, ensuring that the rice has absorbed most of the liquid before adding more. Stir occasionally, using a girariso or a wooden spoon with a hole. Continue this way until the rice feels al dente but tender, around 15 – 17 minutes.

Taste for salt and remove risotto from heat. Cover and leave to rest for 2 minutes. Remove lid, stir in the remaining butter and grated Parmesan or Grana Padano and whip energetically until the fat and cheese has rendered and the rice is creamy. Serve immediately.

Some of this post’s content (photos, theme and salad recipe) also appeared in Italy Magazine on 10th November 2017. And here’s a very comprehensive guide to the different varieties of radicchio cultivated in Italy.

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4 comments

    I love radicchio so much that I’m almost addicted to it! Unfortunately, my husband is not a fan of the bitterness. He does like it in risotto though, so I try to make it when I can. The photos of the risotto made my mouth water! I just love the idea of adding pomegranate seeds to the salad!

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