When it comes to leafy greens, many people are familiar with the likes of romaine, iceberg, and spinach. However, one favorite in the salad bar connoisseur’s repertoire often goes overlooked—radicchio. While radicchio is still relatively unknown compared to other greens, its astringent flavor, dietary benefits, and interesting cultural influences make it a standout amongst the rest.
Radicchio originated in Northern Italy in the 15th century, where it was cultivated for its edible leaves. The green is a member of the chicory family, and is related to endive, escarole, and other bitter greens. In the United States, the most popular variety is the radicchio di Chioggia, a round red and white head with tightly packed leaves. Its look is often recognized as a “red cabbage”, though its taste and texture are unique onto itself.
Radicchio lends its culinary skills to salads, pizzas, pastas, and roasts. Its flavor falls somewhere between lettuce and endive, with a slightly bitter and spicy kick. Unlike other milder greens, it adds a unique distinction to any dish without overwhelming the other ingredients. Nutrition wise, radicchio contains a high amount of vitamin C and polyphenols, which have been known to reduce cholesterol and regulate blood sugar levels.
Though you can find radicchio at most grocery stores throughout the year, the summer months are prime for its peak quality. Additionally, when shopping for radicchio, make sure you purchase heads that are tightly packed and free of blemishes. Other key components of radicchio’s taste and texture include correctly storing and prepping before consumption. Keep the heads in the fridge, lightly wrap them in plastic, and cut off the top inch or so just before use. The leaves should be rinsed and dried for salads, or quartered for roasting.
When it comes to cooking, radicchio does exceptionally well when grilled. To achieve an ideal level of smokiness and a nice char around the edges, season the quartered heads with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and place them cut side down over medium high heat. Cook for 3-5 minutes per side, until they get darker in color and have an even texture. To cool off from the grill, try adding a bit of lemon, balsamic reduction, cream, or apples to the radicchio for a sweet and savory finish.
In addition to its culinary value, radicchio has a wonderfully rich history. During the mid Nineteenth Century, the green was believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac, and was even kept in bridal rooms the night before weddings to arouse the brides to be. It has also been used to form part of the Spighe Fertili, a fertility ritual that involves the planting of radicchio and calling on the Gods to grant good fortune and fertility on the fields.
Radicchio is a unique and tasty green that brings plenty of benefits and unique qualities to the table. Its flavor, dietary benefits, and cultural influences constitute it as a favorite amongst the most seasoned salad bar connoisseurs. If you haven’t tried it yet, give radicchio a go the next time you’re whipping up a salad. You won’t regret it!