The Marvel from treviso
Radicchio has been around for quite some time: Pliny mentions the marvelous red-lined lettuces of the Veneto region in his Naturalis Historia, noting that in addition to being tasty they're good for insomnia and purifying the blood; he also says it was the Egyptians who bred radicchio from its more wild ancestor, chicory. In the Middle Ages it was especially popular among monks, who welcomed anything that would add zest and flavor to the simple, predominately vegetarian diets proscribed by their orders. Not that the plant was limited to monastic kitchens; it also figured prominently on the tables of nobles, both cooked and raw: In 1537 Pietro Aretino advised a friend who had a garden to plant it, saying he much preferred it to "aroma-free lettuce and endive." While tasty, this radicchio isn't the radicchio rosso we know today: the modern radicchio with its rich wine-red white-ribbed leaves was developed in the 1860s by Francesco Van Den Borre, a Belgian agronomist who applied the techniques used to whiten Belgian endive to the plants grown around Treviso. The process, which is called imbianchimento, is quite involved: the plants are harvested in late fall, their outer leaves are timed and discarded, they're packed into wire mesh baskets, and they're stood for several days in darkened sheds with their roots bathed in steadily circulating springwater that emerges from the ground at a temperature of about 15 C (60F). As they bathe the leaves of the hearts of the radicchio plants take on the pronounced wine-red color that distinguishes them (the deeper the red the more pleasingly bitter the plant). At this point the farmer unties the bunches, strips away the outer leaves and, trims the root (the tender part that's just below ground level is tasty), and sends the radicchio to the market.
Preparation: Because of its adaptable shape and mild flavor Treviso is truly the Italian vegetable that cooks! Cut in half through the core, brush lightly with olive oil and grill until tender for a tasty side dish. Quarter the Treviso and bake with olive oil and Parmiggiano Reggiano and you have a delicious gratin. As with all radicchio you can control the intensity of its flavor by soaking the leaves before you use them.
Radicchio Rosso di Treviso. The best, it comes in two varieties: Precoce, which has fleshy red leaves with white ribs that form a compact bunch, and Tardivo, which has much more pronounced ribs and the splayed leaves. As you might guess, precoce comes into season first, and though it is prettier to look at the tardivo is more flavorful, with stronger bitter accents. Both Precoce and Tardivo now enjoy IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) status, which means that they can only be sold as such if they are produced around Treviso, under the supervision of the Consorzio Radicchio di Treviso.
Radicchio Variegato di Castelfranco well know as Rosa di Castelfranco also enjoys IGP status; it looks more like a traditional head of lettuce but has deep wine-red stripes, and is also known as the Edible Flower. It's a cross between radicchio and a round-headed endive.
Though radicchio is undeniably a leafy green of the chicory family, it has the structure and character necessary to stand up to being fried, and if you don't know what it is the first time you encounter it you may not guess. But you will want more.
Radicchio Rosso di Treviso Tardivo, the variety with the more
pronounced rips and thinner leaves, will work better than the
Precoce in this case, though one could use Precoce in a pinch.
Radicchio Rosso di Chioggia would not work.
In addition to being a tasty vegetable that will nicely accompany other grilled meats, including flavorful fare such as sausages, grilled radicchio works nicely as a bed upon which to place other foods, and can go into other dishes.
Wash the radicchio, trim the tips of the leaves and the tap roots, and cut each bunch in half lengthwise. Season the radicchio with the olive oil, salt, and pepper, and let it rest a few minutes.
Cook it gently over the coals (they shouldn't be too hot), using a folding wire-mesh grill of the kind that allows you to turn the food without disturbing it if you have it, brushing the plants with a little more oil every now and again, lest they blacken or char. They're done when they're thoroughly wilted and have lost the bright red color, but still display some crunch.
As a variation, some cooks add a few drops of vinegar to the oil.
Yield: 6 servings grilled radicchio rosso di Treviso.