In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and his friends learn to transform the boggarts who manifest their fears by casting the spell "Riddikulus!" which turns the scary into the laughable. The English word “ridiculous” comes from the Latin ridiculosus "that which excites laughter." Radicchio is also a shape shifter who can move from the serious to the silly. Sometimes intimidating because of its gourmet rep, the bitter leaves are rendered sweet and harmless when even just lightly cooked. Roasting radicchio, as Russ Parsons, Los Angeles Times food editor and author of “How To Read A French Fry,” discovered, "drives off much of the bitterness in radicchio, leaving a sweet vegetable with an intriguing edge."
Radicchio is a chicory (Cichorium intybus) that comes in many handsome varieties, the burgundy-striped version being the most common. It has been eaten for medicinal purposes since Pliny the Elder's time. Monks in the middle Ages used it to add zest to the monastery’s modest fare. Since the 15th century it has been artfully cultivated in Italy into complex and gorgeous varieties such as Rosso di Treviso, Chioggia, and Variegato di Castelfranco. Most Americans weren’t familiar with Radicchio and her sister Endive until the 1980s Nouvelle Cuisine hit the streets.
The assertive flavor of radicchio is a good foil for mellow flavors. It adds bite to a fresh salad, giving back what has been bred out of modern salad. "The intense bitterness of lettuce, which came from a terpene compound called lactucin and its relatives, has been bred out of the cultivated forms. But a number of close lettuce relative are cultivated and included in salad or cooked on their own especially to provide a civilized dose of bitterness. These are plants in the genus Cichorium, which include endive, escarole, chicroy and radicchio," according to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. You can try a number of spells on radicchio to transform it into a wonderful and complex contrast to the other veggies on your plate.
Preparation: To grill, cut radicchio through the core and into wedges, brush with olive oil and grill for a moment. For salads, rip the leaves into bits and toss along with mild greens.
Storage: Store in a plastic bag in the crisper section. Keeps well for a few days.
Heidi Lewis writes about farms, bees, and fruit from her home in Sonoma County, CA. She's been with The FruitGuys since they were FruitKids.