Putting the 'rad' in radicchio
In the produce section, radicchio stands out, with its purple foliage and blindingly white veins. At home, the leaves taste like something most people would just as soon spit out, as soon as possible. That’s because what they’ve learned about radicchio is wrong.
For starters, those burgundy leaves are as tightly packed as a head of cabbage, and just as crispy, but the similarities end there. Radicchio’s crisp depends on water pressure rather than fiber, which gives cabbage its crunch. A more important distinction is that the spicy flavor of cabbage mellows with cooking, unlike the bitter elements of radicchio. Nevertheless, confusing radicchio and cabbage may be at the root of why everyone is wrong about radicchio. Even Wikipedia seems to conflate the two, which come from different plant families entirely.
Every recipe for cooked radicchio that you will find includes some note about how braising or grilling or what-evering radicchio will soften, mellow, relax or otherwise temper its taste. That may work for cabbage, but if anything softens when you cook radicchio, it’s the radicchio itself, which collapses into a damp heap gray-brown heep. All the bitterness remains, and that’s OK. The problem is the slimy, stringy remains of a dish that appears to be in a state of decay and shouldn’t have been prepared to begin with.
Because most toxins are bitter, humans have understandably become wired to regard bitter with skepticism. But clearly, we are also born with the capacity to override this aversion, and actually come around to appreciate certain bitter flavors on a case-by-case basis. Chocolate, coffee and beer, for example, have all earned passes, as they are nontoxic, or even pleasantly intoxicating, making us feel good in various ways.
But with bitter vegetables, the benefit of swallowing is not so immediately obvious. And without something to compel us, we often stay in default mode, and simply avoid these flavors. But bitter flavors, aside from the various feelings they invoke, are worth exploring.
Jennifer McLagan, author of the award-winning Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, likens bitterness to a kind of wizened charisma. “Bitter,” she writes, “is a cultured, intriguing and sophisticated taste, with a dangerous side. Who could be more fun to cook or to dine with?”
My wife seems to agree. She would sooner dine with a bowl of radicchio than her husband.
We live on a radicchio sanctuary, where my wife is chief caretaker, lead researcher and executive salad-dressing maker. She is so far past the bitter barrier that bitter tastes better to her than sweet.
Many of these bitter flavors come from vitamins, antioxidants and various healthy phytonutrients. My wife eats radicchio like some people eat chips and salsa. She either peels the leaves off a head or slices it into wedges. Either way, she’s dipping it into her special dressing, which consists of two parts XVOO, one part soy sauce, one part vinegar (the vinegar portion being equal parts cider and balsamic), and half a lime. Her typical dinner consists of six to 10 radicchio heads, or a massive bowl of leaves from the sanctuary, where the harvest of entire heads is frowned upon.
Her dressing is designed to celebrate, rather than hide, the bitterness. She says eating all that radicchio makes her feel good, approximately as good as coffee, beer and chocolate combined (not literally combined).
Being a relative grasshopper in radicchiology compared to her, I don’t mind a little assistance in order to get to that special place. So I’ve designed my own chocolate and beer-based salad dressing, with which to handle life’s bitterest leaves.
Some may consider it cheating to incorporate chocolate and beer, but I call it science. By surrounding the bitter flavors of radicchio with bitter flavors from elsewhere, the bitter jolt of a naked bite is couched in layered complexity, a context that has the effect of softening the bitter like cooking wishes it could.
In addition to the beer – a citrusy IPA, ideally – and the chocolate, which is added in the form of powdered hot cocoa mix, the dressing contains bitter notes from olive oil, garlic powder and cumin. Meanwhile, the bitter flavors are countered by the sweetness of the hot chocolate mix, and acidity from the vinegar, lime juice and the beer.
Chocolate Radicchio Dressing
3⁄4 cup XVOO 1 T hot cocoa powder
1⁄4 cup balsamic
2 T IPA beer, preferably a citrus-y brew
1 T lime or lemon juice
Salt, black pepper, garlic powder, cumin, to taste Combine ingredients, season to taste by dipping leaves and testing. When it tastes right, continue dipping. Or better yet, use the dressing to flavor goodies that you can wrap in radicchio. Those purple leaves may not like being cooked, but wrapped around rich foods, they not only add a dignified dose of bitterness, but hold it all together for perfect mouthfuls every time.
My favorite use of my new dressing, so far, is to toss it with rounds of pan-fried sausage and fried cheese curd, and place those in a radicchio leaf with raw shallot, pine nuts and a slice of jalapen?o, and maybe another dollop of dressing. Fold, insert in mouth, bliss out, repeat.
If this mouthful of bitter, sweet, spicy, sour, salty fat doesn’t make you a bitter believer, it may not be in the cards. But at least you didn’t waste any time, or radicchio, cooking it limp.
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