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Cook Your Lettuce

June 17, 1993|FAITH WILLINGER | Willinger is a food writer based in Florence, Italy. and

It's been spotted in salads at all the best restaurants, but really, radicchio is at its best cooked: grilled, braised, roasted or stir-fried, in risotto or saucing pasta. Bitter but not nasty, it is food only grown-ups can love. Besides, it's low in calories.

Radicchio is a member of the chicory family ( Cichorium intybus ), which grows spontaneously throughout the Mediterranean area and beyond and is ever prized by foraging Italians.

Cultivation probably tamed some of the wildness out of the plant. But, according to culinary historian Giuseppe Maffioli, modern radicchio was developed in the late 1860s south of Treviso. Its creator was the Belgian garden consultant Francesco Van den Borre, who had been hired to "do" the garden of Villa Palazzi in the then-fashionable English style.

Van den Borre messed around with the local lettuce and was most likely familiar with the Belgian blanching-sprouting technique used on endive. Son Aldo followed in his father's footsteps, and by the end of the century, methods of cultivating radicchio were being promoted by a local agricultural association.

In Northern Italy, in the Veneto region, the towns of Chioggia, Verona, Castelfranco and Treviso have each developed distinct varieties of radicchio. Chioggia's is a tight, purple-red ball aswirl with bulging, pumped-up white veins. Verona's is small, loose-leaved, soft and ovoid. Castelfranco's looks more like a yellowish-green-and-wine-freckled ball of tender lettuce unfolding gently like a rose; it is frequently subjected to a simple blanching.

But Veneto's entry in the Gastronomic Hall of Fame is the red radicchio from Treviso--bittersweet, expensive and seasonal. It is exposed to a complicated forcing-blanching-sprouting technique that results in elongated, sun-starved, spider-mum-like spears of purple-red with an impressive pearly white central rib, held together by a pointed, peeled root.

If there were a vegetable-rights movement, Treviso growers would surely be accused of cruelty. Selected seeds are planted in early summer, and green-red leafed heads are harvested in the fall with their root systems intact. They are then packed tightly in long furrows in a plastic tunnel and removed as needed for the next stage. Plants are transferred to low cement pools covered with plastic where roots absorb warm spring water and the plants begin to sprout (once this process was done in barn stalls, and the roots were immersed in cow manure).

Looking much the worse for wear, with rotting outer leaves and a long, hairy taproot, the plants are then moved indoors to a warm, moist environment, draining onto sawdust for a few days, which forces the development of the sprouts even more. When this stage is complete, plants are trimmed of their rotten outer leaves to expose the heart that has sprouted in the center--the tender, etiolated white-and-red leaves. The hairy taproot is cleaned up and carved to one-third the length of the radicchio head, and the trimmed, shaved Treviso is given a rinse, crated and ready for market.

Clearly this is not a practical procedure, which is why forced Treviso radicchio sells for twice as much as easier-to-grow, more coercible varieties. It's not a simple business to jump into, since first-rate seeds of easy-to-mutate radicchio are never sold. And the market is mined with hybrids.

Most forced Treviso radicchio is sold regionally, although fancy greengrocers throughout Italy will often carry it. Outside Northern Italy, it's easier to find Chioggia, Verona or unforced Treviso, and the same selection is either grown in or imported into the United States.

Two men from Veneto (Lucio Gomiero and Carlo Boscalo) and Fresh Western Marketing, a grower-shipper, successfully raise quality radicchio with family heirloom seeds in California, (408) 758-1390. They are experimenting with the forcing procedure.

Radicchio isn't easy to grow, but Shepherd's Garden Seeds in Connecticut, (203) 482-3638, offers five kinds for sale--and no forcing is necessary, even for the Treviso. You can start your own selective breeding program.

The recipes that follow can be prepared with Belgian endive, which has undergone a similar forcing regimen. Or use a combination of Belgian endive and radicchio to get more of the bittersweet, crisp sprout sensation of Treviso.

Fans of radicchio should consider making a pilgrimage to Veneto during the cold winter months, when the region's restaurants are rarely without this much-prized vegetable. The true radicchio lover will head for Ristorante Le Tre Panoce in Conegliano, owned by chef Armando Zanotto, author of "Il Radicchio in Cucina," a cookbook with 617 radicchio recipes, ranging from appetizers to desserts, using Treviso and Castelfranco varieties. Zanotto will prepare an extensive all-radicchio menu, concluding with radicchio grappa for those who just can't get enough of a good thing.

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