An underused, deep purple chicory can elevate your cold-weather cooking.

By Chris Malloy
Updated December 06, 2019
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Radicchio, one of the most pungent plants in the chicory family, simply looks packed with flavor. And that’s because it is. The purple-tinted spheres of compact, crunchy leaves—like romaine but in tight ball form—have a signature bitter spirit. For its flavor and vivid color, radicchio is prized in kitchens from Northern Italy to all over the United States.

But that bitterness can be so harsh, so extreme! How can you master it? How can you tap into the wonders of radicchio, one of our most unique winter vegetables?

First, it helps to think about the vegetable’s singular flavor and texture. Tasted raw, radicchio has a steep bitterness, almost like that of raw Brussels sprouts, only sharper and longer lasting. This bitterness, too, seems to build. The texture of the leaves, on the other hand, is a sort of silkiness at its thin, leafy ends, and a fibrous crunch on the ribs and white parts closer to the base. As a whole, radicchio resembles a crunchier salad green like gem lettuce, one freshly picked and retaining all the vibrancy of the earth.

The key to radicchio is to highlight this bitterness, to celebrate that texture. But that doesn’t mean you can’t tame the bitterness some. In fact, it helps to. One way to tamp down the edge is to soak radicchio in ice water for about half an hour before use.

Another way to soften radicchio’s bitter edge is to look to the grill. Grilling will bring out latent brown, nutty flavors. It will also transform the vegetable’s crunch. That crisp-browned veneer common to grilling will appear on the outside, and the snappy bite of the white parts will lessen. Though grilling salad greens like romaine is a practice that has some element of trend, grilling radicchio is a tried-and-true method of showcasing the vegetable.

If you’re looking to grill radicchio, cut it into wedges that have a thick, outer curve of an inch or so. Add oil, salt, and a showering of granulated garlic. The color radicchio gains from grilling looks great with its natural burgundy. Served as a side, it doesn’t need much more than a pungent vinaigrette, or a balsamic glaze or drizzle.

And treated right, radicchio is a vegetable that thrives raw.

Before working with it raw (or cooked), you’re going to want to make sure you’ve sourced and stored the vegetable as well as you can. When shopping, look for compact heads with few wrinkles. When it comes to keeping them before use, look to the fridge. If possible, wrap radicchio to minimize its light exposure.

Raw radicchio does best as one part of a salad, the other parts working to balance that bitterness. Don’t skimp when adding the other parts. Think big components: salty, fruity, and/or acidic. Mustardy ingredients, like capers and vinaigrettes that incorporate mustard, are made for radicchio. So are salty cheeses, like Parmesan, and intense cheeses like aged bleu cheese or fresh feta. Shower these cheeses on. Crisp skin-on fruit like apples and pears can bring brightness and pleasantly contrasting texture. Slivered root vegetables, like fennel, have earthy sweetness and snap that dovetail with radicchio. And you’ll want to serve a radicchio salad beside a flavor-packed main, so the main isn’t overtaken by the potent side.

When dressing a radicchio salad, dress it early. This will allow lemon juice, Champagne vinegar, balsamic vinegar, or whatever acid you’re using in your dressing to soften not only the bite of the leaves, but their crunch. Once you’ve positioned and tamed this feisty vegetable some, you may find yourself buying it just about every week.