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IN THE KITCHEN / RUSS PARSONS

Italy's Lovable Redheads

The appearance of California-grown radicchio di Treviso opens the lettuce-cokking possibilities.

September 23, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

Normally, I'm pretty picky about the temperature of my lettuce. In fact, my wife and the servers at our neighborhood soup 'n' salad place will tell you that I'm downright obsessive about it. All because I feel obliged to point out, very politely I think, that serving my salad on a plate hot out of the dishwasher isn't the best idea. And don't even get me started on all of these so-called Caesar salads topped with grilled meat.

Lettuces are mostly water. Heat them and they wilt. Wilted lettuce is limp. It is flavorless. It is drab.

Which is why you may be surprised that this column is about cooking greens. Or, more accurately, reds.

What I'm talking about is radicchio, and what prompted this whole thing was finding a bunch of radicchio di Treviso at the supermarket a couple of weeks ago.

The lettuce that we know generically as radicchio--that round little red head with pumped-up white veins--is actually only one of a family of lettuces. They all come from the Veneto, the area just around Venice, and each is named after a city in the area.

The radicchio with which we're most familiar is actually radicchio di Chioggia, the same coastal town just south of Venice that gave its name to those sweet little bulls-eye beets (I figure it must be a nice place). Treviso is due north.

There's another round-headed radicchio from Verona, about an hour west of Venice. It has loose, soft leaves as opposed to Chioggia's sturdier ones.

In addition, there's a variation of the Treviso radicchio called tardivo, which is not a place but a condition. Tardivo means slow or awkward, and that's a pretty good description of the labor-intensive process used to produce this little plant. In much the same way as Belgian endive, it is actually grown twice. The first growth is snipped off, the roots are transplanted to a barn where they sprout again and this second growth is kept from light, to make it more delicate. It's a real specialty crop, not widely found even in Italy and certainly not in this country.

It's not so hard to find the others, though. In fact, round Chioggia radicchio has practically become a supermarket staple, though it is usually priced quite a bit higher than other lettuces. And now Treviso radicchio is making itself known.

European Vegetable Specialties--a partnership of Californian John Tamagni, Italian Carlo Boscolo (he lives in Chioggia) and Italian-turned-Californian Lucio Gomiero--is growing Treviso radicchio, along with Chioggia and the Tuscan kale called cavolo nero, in the Salinas Valley. The Treviso is sold in some Los Angeles supermarkets.

The distinguishing characteristic of radicchio, aside from its red color, is the distinctive bitterness of its flavor. It's not overpoweringly or even unpleasantly bitter, but in a culture that is remarkably short on bitter foods, it can seem so to American eaters--at least the first time they try it.

Of the various radicchios, the round heads are less bitter than the Treviso (which most closely resembles a kind of smaller, scarlet head of romaine).

That may make the round heads better for salads, but the Treviso is unmatched when cooked. Since it's a tougher green, it holds on to its texture longer than other lettuces. And as it cooks, it develops an almost mysterious, smoky sweetness that makes an absolutely delicious counterpoint to the bitterness.

Try this: Cut a head of Treviso radicchio in half lengthwise and then grill it, brushing it with olive oil in which you've steeped some minced garlic. A little salt and pepper and you won't believe how good it tastes. It's the perfect foil for grilled meats.

Also try using a little cooked radicchio in a winter lasagna. That bitterness is a splendid tonic to rich cheese and besciamella. And if you cook radicchio in risotto with red wine, you'll get a brilliant, magenta rice dish with a complexity of flavor that might surprise you.

This recipe, a kind of twist on the simplest grill, underscores that smoky-sweet part of the radicchio flavor with a little bacon and garlic. Serve it alongside roast pork.

RADICCHIO AL FORNO

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 strips lean bacon, chopped

2 cloves garlic, sliced

2 pounds radicchio, preferably long heads (Treviso)

1/4 pound mozzarella, cubed

1/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese

* Slowly cook olive oil, bacon and garlic in small saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally, until bacon and garlic soften, about 5 minutes. Do not let garlic color.

* While garlic cooks, rinse radicchio well in cold water and pat dry. Cut long heads in half lengthwise, round heads in quarters lengthwise. Arrange radicchio in baking pan. You can stack heads; they will cook down.

* Pour garlic oil and bacon over radicchio, turning radicchio to coat evenly. Bake radicchio at 450 degrees until soft, about 40 minutes, turning occasionally to keep coated with oil. If garlic slices begin to blacken, remove them from pan. Keep pushing radicchio together in center as it cooks down.

* When radicchio is soft, push together in center of pan and distribute mozzarella cubes over top. Sprinkle over grated Pecorino and return to oven. Bake until mozzarella melts and begins to brown, about 15 minutes. Serve hot.

6 side-dish or 4 main-dish servings. Each side-dish serving contains: 162 calories; 206 mg sodium; 23 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.25 gram fiber.

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