Radicchio di Chioggia

Other names: Radicchio Rosso, Red Chicory

Availability: All year.

Source: Italy, Chile and the United States.

Handling Tips: 34°F. Keep cold, mist lightly.

General Information: Radicchio Rosso di Chioggia was bred from the Variegato; it has dark red leaves with white ribs, but is rounder than Radicchio di Treviso; it's also compact, and as a result it resembles a head of cabbage in shape. It's now the most commonly grown radicchio rosso in Italy.

Prized for its ruby red color and pungent flavor, the head size may range from baseball to softball size. Radicchio has a sharp, intense flavor that is pleasantly bitter. It has tender but firm leaves and is a popular green in salad mixes. Commonly, the name “radicchio” refers to the variety with dark maroon leaves and white ribs growing in a round head about the size of a large grapefruit. Heads are tightly packed layers of tender, thin leaves. Superb fresh in salads or grilled and sprinkled lightly with olive oil. Excellent source of vitamins A and C.

Applications: Radicchio can be used raw in salads, as an ingredient in a variety of cooked dishes such as pasta or pizza and it is especially well suited for grilling. You can control the intensity of its flavor by soaking the leaves before you use them.

History: Radicchio has been around for quite some time: Pliny mentions the marvelous red-lined lettuces of the Veneto region in his Naturalis Historia, noting that in addition to being tasty they're good for insomnia and purifying the blood; he also says it was the Egyptians who bred radicchio from its more wild ancestor, chicory. In the Middle Ages it was especially popular among monks, who welcomed anything that would add zest and flavor to the simple, predominately vegetarian diets proscribed by their orders. Not that the plant was limited to monastic kitchens; it also figured prominently on the tables of nobles, both cooked and raw: In 1537 Pietro Aretino advised a friend who had a garden to plant it, saying he much preferred it to "aroma-free lettuce and endive."

While tasty, this radicchio isn't the radicchio rosso we know today: the modern radicchio with its rich wine-red white-ribbed leaves was developed in the 1860s by Francesco Van Den Borre, a Belgian agronomist who applied the techniques used to whiten Belgian endive to the plants grown around Treviso. The process, which is called imbianchimento, is quite involved: the plants are harvested in late fall, their outer leaves are timmed and discarded, they're packed into wire mesh baskets, and they're stood for several days in darkened sheds with their roots bathed in steadily circulating springwater that emerges from the ground at a temperature of about 15 C (60F). As they bathe the leaves of the hearts of the radicchio plants take on the pronounced wine-red color that distinguishes them (the deeper the red the more pleasingly bitter the plant). At this point the farmer unties the bunches, strips away the outer leaves and, trims the root (the tender part that's just below ground level is tasty), and sends the radicchio to the market.

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