Radicchio is an exotic Italian salad ingredient related to chicory. The distinctive plant grows in a rich maroon color with white veins and has a peppery flavor that adds a textural bite to salads. Radicchio is sometimes grilled or roasted, making a pleasant counterpoint to other grilled vegetables. It is growing in popularity and can be found in most produce sections. Radicchio has been in cultivation in the Mediterranean for hundreds of years and is used in a variety of Mediterranean dishes.

Radicchio resembles lettuce most in appearance, although it is not in the lettuce family. It forms tight heads of leaves furled around a central core and grows low to the ground. Radicchio makes a startling splash of color in the garden, and its natural bitterness makes it less subject to depredation by garden pests.

Donning regal robes of maroon and cream, radicchio reigns supreme among traditional Italian vegetables. Beloved by chef and gourmand alike, this often misunderstood red chicory endures a love or hate relationship among those that try it because of its slightly bitter nature.

Cultivated since the fifteenth century in the Veneto region of Italy, the deep red radicchio of today was developed by Belgian agronomist Franco Van den Borre. Van den Borre used a technique imbianchimento (whitening) or pre-forcing to create the dark red with white veined leaves. Plants are removed from the ground and placed in water or sand in a cool dark cellar. The lack of light inhibits chlorophyll production causing the plants to lose their green color. For those of us that have neither root cellar nor desire to go to such lengths, a paper bag or pot turned over each head for a while will produce somewhat similar results.
Although many folks that are familiar with radicchio view it as a salad component, radicchio lends itself to numerous other culinary possibilities. It is delicious roasted, grilled, braised, sautéed, stir fried, or fried. Raise the bar even higher by combining it with pasta, baking it inside a pizza crust or strudel pastry, or cooking it in a risotto until it manifests into a creamy, melting consistency.
Grow these leafy vegetables like lettuce in spring or fall. Some varieties are better for fall preferring the cooler nights. With fall crops the flavor mellows with the onset of cold weather. Direct sow the tiny seeds in a sunny location planting them in rich, well dug soil 1/4-inch deep and 1/2-inch apart in rows 18-inches apart. Thin the seedling 10 to 16 inches apart.

Although direct sowing is most often recommended, setting out greenhouse transplants works well for me. Radicchio has a shallower root system than its other chicory cousins, preferring more frequent but not deep watering. Infrequent watering will lead to a more bitter tasting leaf. It is an easy vegetable to grow, requiring little care unless you get into some of the complex blanching methods use by commercial growers.

Given its cost at the market and the relative ease of growing it, tuck some of this royal plant into your fall gardens. Radicchio, the queen of Italian vegetables is a gustatory treat and beauty to behold. That’s the short and “bitter” sweet of it!

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