The endive's trendier cousin

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Indy Lifestyle Online
HAVING been concerned of late with food-stuffs that have disappeared, it struck me that life has not been all loss on the gastronomic front. Alongside the many invented fruits (mainly hybrids) that have been introduced in my lifetime, there is also radicchio which, had it been asked for in my middle age, would have caused puzzlement.

So far as I know, it had been confined largely to Venice until quite recently, and though Venetian cuisine is autonomous, interesting, sometimes even good (about the only Venetian dish that has travelled much is Venetian liver, which is good but hardly a favour to liver), it is seldom seen outside of the Veneto itself. Now radicchio, under a variety of names, is trendy food indeed and almost universally available, generally in salads.

Thank to notes from Marco Moretti at La Stampa, I now know that radicchio is the generic name for various members of the chicory family, a sort of cousin to the Belgian endive produced by a method known as 'pre- forcing', which causes the growth of a central nucleus of leaves that are variously red, white or variegated.

Among the myriad radicchio varieties produced in the Veneto, there are basically four in general use, two primarily used in salads, and two in cooking. The best-known is Verona Red, sometimes called Orchid. This forms a round head with pink- to-violet leaves and a white heart. The Chioggia, sometimes sold as Rose of Chioggia, is bigger and tarter. Both have positively bitter stalks which (contrary to the endive) one seldom sees in salads, though they often turn up in soups and are much appreciated.

Of the two varieties used in cooking, Treviso Rose has much longer red leaves round a white heart, while the Castelfranco variety, large and pink and spotted with red and violet, looks like a large, spotty rose.

All these varieties and the many others now grown in different areas of the world, are part of the ever- changing world of the salad - a dish which in my childhood was confined to a kidney-shaped plate to the left of the main place setting. They are extremely welcome additions, for while many of the lettuces used in salads exist only to be dressed (nowadays with an enormous variety of mixtures, but in Italy still almost exclusively with oil, a touch of vinegar, salt and pepper), radicchio has a potent flavour. A few leaves will greatly alter the overall taste of any salad and, eaten alone, radicchio is always a welcome (if often expensive) change.

The point about radicchio in salads is that it is part of that revolution in our palates which demands ever sharper and more separate identifiable flavours. In my lifetime, eating has swung from Victorian blandness to positive sensation-seeking, mainly in the form of discrete units of flavour added to perfectly traditional dishes: for instance, the now omni-present sun-dried tomato. My only advice for radicchio in salads is that it should not be overdressed - a good salad is a blend of flavours, not open warfare among them. As in most things, simple is best: a sprinkling of good olive oil, little salt, a twist of fresh pepper.

The relatively unexplored (outside Italy) possibilities of cooked radicchio are numerous. They can, for instance (like endives), be braised either whole or halved over a slow heat in a small amount of good stock (we use beef). There should be just enough liquid to cover the bottom of the pan, for the browning of the leaves is part of the taste.

A popular dish in Italy is radicchio (of the two larger varieties above) cut in half, covered with a thin slice of cheese, generally soft and not too pungent and preferab1y white. Put the radicchio in a pre-heated moderate oven for about 15 minutes; the cheese will melt into the leaves, and the cooked leaves will have even more flavour than the raw.

Italians, who do much of their cooking alla griglia, or over an open fire, frequently put quarter- or half- heads of radicchio, generously sprinkled with olive oil, between or alongside any meat being cooked. The only precaution needed here is to turn them several times during cooking to avoid burning.

Best of all is a wonderful vegetarian risotto. To make this, take two medium heads of radicchio, blanch them for about two minutes, squeeze them free of water in a tea towel, slice and then put them in a frying pan with a knob of butter and a tiny bit of garlic, stirring frequently. Add rice (about 12oz or 350g of Italian round Arborio rice will do for four people) and, still stirring, wait patiently for all the rice to have become, if not transparent, at least plainly not raw. (This takes a minimum of 3 minutes; add more butter if you need to).

Add the best stock you have (veal or chicken, or vegetable if you are a strict vegetarian) bit by bit until the rice is just about done. Meanwhile, grate 1 1/2 oz or 50g of gruyere and 2tbs of real parmesan (do not spoil this dish with what passes for parmesan in those wretched Euro-packs). Just before serving, when the last liquid has evaporated from the rice, adjust the salt, add the gruyere, parmesan and a large-ish knob of butter, and stir. Serve hot. You will find this risotto pungent, delicious and filling.

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