I wasn’t a fan of sturdy, bitter lettuce like radicchio until I tasted a delicious radicchio salad made by chef Cathy Whims of Nostrana Restaurant in Portland, Oregon.
Chef Whims’ secret is to soak the radicchio in cold water for two hours to remove the slightly bitter taste. I have also discovered that radicchio loses its bite when cooked. Once cooked, radicchio can be chopped and added to pasta, soup or risotto, or can liven up a dish where a contrast of color and flavor is desired.
Deep-red radicchio, a member of the chicory family along with escarole and endive, has been cultivated in the Veneto region of Italy since the 15th century. It has always been popular in Italy, but it has only been grown in the United States since 1988. It has wine-red-tipped leaves with bright white ribs and grows either in firm, cabbage-like heads (radicchio rosso or Verona) or elongated ones with tapered leaves and a white bulblike base (radicchio di Treviso).
Varieties of radicchio are named after the Italian regions where they originated. Radicchio is a good source of vitamins A and C as well as iron. Whole leaves can be used like cups to serve hors d’oeuvres or hold salads like tuna or chicken.
The lettuce also stands up well to spicy seasonings, aromatic herbs and tangy dressings. It is delicious roasted, grilled, braised or sautéed. I especially like it quartered lengthwise through the root end (so that the leaves stay together and don’t slip through the grates), soaked it in cold water for a few minutes to moisten it, doused with olive oil and grilled or sautéed in a cast-iron pan for about ten minutes (turning during that time), and finished with a balsamic vinegar dressing and bits of Gorgonzola cheese.
Radicchio is available all year. Select firm and crisp heads with shiny leaves. Avoid brown spots or shriveled leaves. It will keep for several days wrapped in a loosely closed plastic bag in the vegetable drawer in the refrigerator.
To prepare radicchio for a salad, separate the leaves and soak in a bowl of ice water for two hours or longer. Dry the leaves well in a salad spinner to avoid diluting the dressing with excess moisture. The leaves can be torn or cut into julienne slices. Because oil can cause radicchio (or any lettuce) to wilt, coat the leaves just before serving with only enough dressing to make sure it does not pool at the bottom of the bowl.
Chef Philippe Reynaud, senior director of culinary operations at the Ocean Reef Club, wrote to comment on the cheese “frico” from last month’s Italian Basil Salad with Crispy Parmesan and Oregano Vinaigrette.
“Have you ever tried to microwave the parmesan instead of [baking] in the oven?” he suggests. “The chips come out so much better. Sprinkle grated parmesan on parchment paper and microwave for 1 min. Bam!”
Cathy Whim’s Insalata Nostrana
The salad can be served as it is, or as a bed for grilled boneless chicken breasts, fish kebabs, or shrimp. This Caesar-like salad has lots of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and a vinaigrette-based dressing, so a white wine with good acidity and creamy finish such as Hahn 2013 Monterey Chardonnay ($14) works great. Makes 8 servings.
2 large heads of radicchio (the round Verona type)
3 cups cubed (3/4-inch) herbed focaccia or crusty country bread
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon (total) chopped fresh sage and rosemary
2 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons white wine
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
4 or 5 oil-packed anchovy fillets, finely chopped
2 egg yolks (or 2 tablespoons mayonnaise if desired)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Break apart radicchio into 1 1/2-inch pieces and soak in icy water for 2 hours. Meanwhile, prepare croutons and dressing. Bake the bread cubes in a 375-degree oven on a large baking sheet until toasted; about 10 to 15 minutes. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan, add the sage and rosemary, and cook until fragrant. Turn off heat, add croutons, toss well, and cool. Add garlic, vinegar, wine, mayonnaise, anchovies, egg yolks, olive oil and pepper to a food processor or blender and process until emulsified. Season to taste. Drain radicchio, spin well in salad spinner and place in large salad bowl. Toss with dressing to coat well, add croutons, then shower generously with Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Per serving: 400 calories (86 percent from fat), 38.6 g fat (9.2 g saturated, 22.8 g monounsaturated), 68.9 mg cholesterol, 5.2 g protein, 9.3 g carbohydrate, 0.8 g fiber, 251 mg sodium.
Source: Adapted from chef Cathy Whims of Nostrana Restaurant in Portland, Oregon.