Go ahead, get Radicchio Cultivating the deep red jewel in vegetable family's crown

April 25, 1993|By Faith Willinger | Faith Willinger,Contributing Writer Los Angeles Times Syndicate

It's easy to spot in salads at trendy restaurants. It's newe than sun-dried tomatoes, hipper than arugula -- purplish-red shreds or cupped white-veined leaves of yet another easily mispronounced Italian designer lettuce. But once you've learned say rah-DEE-key-oh, you're ready to start cooking, because red radicchio is easy to cook -- at its best grilled, braised, roasted or stir-fried, in risotto or saucing pasta. Bitter but not nasty, it is food only grown-ups can love. Besides, it's low in calories.

Red radicchio is a member of the chicory family (Cichorium intybus), which grows spontaneously throughout the Mediterranean area and beyond, and is ever prized by foraging Italians.

Cultivation probably tamed some of the wildness out of the plant. But, according to Veneto culinary historian Guiseppe 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 "do" 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. He messed around with the local lettuce. Son Aldo followed in his father's footsteps, and, by the end of the 1800s, cultivation methods of 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. Chioggia is a tight, purple-red ball aswirl with bulging, pumped-up white veins. Verona is small, loose-leaved, soft and ovoid. Castelfranco looks more like a yellowish-green-and-wine-freckled ball of tender lettuce unfolding gently like a rose; it is frequently subjected to a simple blanching.

But 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, spider-mum-like spears of purple-red with an impressive pearly white central rib, held together by a pointed, peeled root.

Vegetable harassment

If there were a vegetable-rights movement, Treviso growers would surely be accused of harassment. Selected seeds are planted in early summer, and green-red leafed heads are harvested in the fall with their root systems intact. They are then packed tightly in long furrows in a plastic tunnel, and removed as needed for the next stage. Plants are transferred to low cement pools covered with plastic where life goes on -- roots absorb warm spring water (once this process was done in barn stalls, and the roots were immersed in cow manure), and the plants begin to sprout.

Looking the worse for wear, with unattractive rotting outer leaves and a long, hairy taproot, the plants are then moved indoors to a warm, moist environment to drain onto sawdust for a few days, forcing the development of the 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 given a rinse, crated and 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, more coercible varieties; and it's not a simple business to jump into, because first-rate seeds of easy-to-mutate red radicchio are never sold. And the market is mined with hybrids.

Most forced Treviso red radicchio is sold regionally, although fancy greengrocers throughout Italy will often carry it. Outside Northern Italy, it's easier to find Chioggia, Verona or unforced Treviso, and the same selection is either grown or imported into the United States.

Two men from Veneto, Lucio Gomiero and Carlo Boscalo, and Fresh Western Marketing, a grower-shipper, successfully raise quality red radicchio with family heirloom seeds in California. They are experimenting with the forcing procedure. If you're interested, call (408) 758-1390 for more information.

Radicchio isn't easy to grow, but Shepherd's Garden Seeds in Connecticut, (203) 482-3638, offers five different 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.

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