Assertive radicchio mates happily with “power partners” to create blissful culinary marriages.
Courtesy of Royal Rose LLC
The assertive flavor of radicchio, once only the darling of cutting-edge chefs, has penetrated the U.S. salad market. No longer an “adult” ingredient, it is showing up in salads from McDonald’s to the salad blends in the produce aisle. Blending it with other, milder greens and lettuces has made radicchio an everyday player in salads everywhere.
Now, American ingenuity in the kitchen is taking radicchio beyond the traditional tossed salad. This is tasteful news, as radicchio’s bold flavor is an ideal foil for myriad other ingredients and flavors.
“Radicchio’s slightly spicy bite—its bright, bitter note—makes it pair deliciously with many other flavor components,” says Robin Kline, food writer, dietitian and culinary consultant. “In fact, there are five categories of foods that make radicchio perform brilliantly—mellowing its bitter character to 'just right.' These pairings or flavor-layering techniques create delicious synergy in a dish."
When you add cooking—which alters radicchio’s assertiveness—there are six approaches for serving radicchio. “And when you use many ingredients, exponentially there are endless ways of serving this vibrant, sturdy vegetable from Italy,” Kline says.
Flavor Partners for Radicchio
Salt. This everyday ingredient is critical for highlighting many other flavors. Indeed, many foods would taste flat or bland without a touch of salt. Salt masks some of the assertive bitterness of radicchio, and adds its own salty magic to the eating experience.
“Salt acts as a filter on the palate for bitter flavors,” says Dr. Ken Prusa, food scientist and professor of product development at Iowa State University. “So combining a bitter flavor with salt pleases the palate.”
Common salty ingredients include table salt, sea salt, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and a wide variety of condiments. Salty foods to pair with radicchio might include olives, salty cheeses such as feta or Parmesan, cured meats such as ham or prosciutto, salted nuts, anchovies and capers.
Sour. “Acid ingredients like lemon juice and vinegar chemically alter bitter compounds, resulting in a more palate-pleasing effect,” says Prusa.
Sour ingredients are found everywhere in the kitchen. Beyond the obvious and essential vinegar and lemon juice, think about fermented dairy products like buttermilk and sour cream, fermented meats such as salami and some sausages, tart fruits such as carambola (starfruit) or green apples, and wine.
Anthocyanins, the group of compounds that gives radicchio its deep, cherry-red color, are maintained—and radicchio’s red color—with the addition of acid, according to Shirley Corriher, food scientist and author of CookWise. So sour ingredients are important to taste, and also serve to maintain radicchio's vibrant color.
Sweet. “Sweet and bitter is a match made in culinary heaven,” says Kline. “Anyone who appreciates a piece of chocolate understands this. One flavor enhances the other, bringing out the best in both.”
When pairing radicchio with sweet flavors, there’s a culinary world to choose from: Examples include table sugar, honey, molasses, cane syrup and maple syrup; fresh or dried fruit such as pears, apples, grapes, dried cranberries, apricots, raisins; jam, jelly or preserves; and candied nuts.
Fat. Bitter compounds, according to Prusa, are attracted to fat molecules, actually binding with them. So ingredients with a high percentage of fat will act as a buffer for bitter flavors.
“Oil and vinegar are the 'yin-and-yang' of the kitchen. We can’t imagine a vinaigrette or salad dressing without oil: It's a similar situation with oil and the bitterness in radicchio,” says Kline. “Oil and other fatty foods, used with restraint, are perfect partners with radicchio. Not only does fat surround the bitter flavor compounds, mellowing them, but also the clean, bitter flavors in radicchio cut the unctuousness of some fatty ingredients like smoked salmon, making an extremely pleasing flavor combo.”
Fat ingredients include oils—both neutral in flavor such as vegetable, peanut or grape seed and flavored oils such as walnut and extra-virgin olive oils; butter and rich dairy products such as heavy cream, sour cream and rich cheeses like triple crème or camembert; avocado, bacon and oily fish such as smoked salmon.
Pungent. Many foods we enjoy every day, and use commonly as ingredients, such as mustard, are pungent. “Pungency is usually a complicated set of flavors and elements in a food that result in biting, acrid, sharp and strong flavors,” says Kline.
Pungent flavors are very strong and assertive—no culinary wallflowers here! So pairing pungency with radicchio’s bold bitterness makes for a head-on ‘strong meets strong’ flavor marriage. “Pungent and bitter is a brilliant flavor match,” according to Kline
There are many foods with pungent flavors with which to pair radicchio. Pungent flavors are found in mustards, anchovies, many ripe cheeses such as blue cheeses; any smoky food such as smoked cheeses, bacon and other smoked meats, smoked fish; cured olives, especially dry-cured; horseradish; sulfurous vegetables such as onion and garlic; and freshly ground black pepper.
Cooking. As any cook knows, but maybe doesn’t really think about, cooking any food dramatically alters it. According to Harold McGee, food scientist and author of On Food and Cooking, “every cooking method has its own unique influence on any food, including altering its flavor compounds.”
“The bright, bitter flavors in radicchio are mellowed by cooking,” Kline says. “We all love radicchio in its raw state, dressed so many delicious ways, but cooking radicchio seems to be a savory culinary secret that needs to be shared.”
“Quick, direct-heat cooking methods transform radicchio into a slightly mellower vegetable,” says Kline. “Being naturally tender, unlike other winter ‘braising’ greens, radicchio can be cooked quickly. Grilling, roasting, sautéing, even deep-frying reveals a softer side of radicchio's personality.”
Roasting radicchio, as Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons discovered, “drives off much of the bitterness in radicchio, leaving a sweet vegetable with an intriguing edge.
Endless Flavor Combos
Radicchio offers creative cooks endless possibilities for flavor pairings. Most ingredients—salty, sour, fatty, sweet and pungent—will carry more than one flavor component, and using several ingredients together with radicchio results in captivating, complex flavors in dishes that win raves for the cook.
“With flavors that harmonize so beautifully together, you have a dish that tastes like more than the sum of its parts,” says Kline. “That's not only synergy, that’s good cooking!”
Handling an Italian Redhead
This stunning creamy white and deep cherry red Italian vegetable, which is now grown domestically in the “salad bowl” of the nation—the Salinas Valley of California—arrives in our markets as radicchio di Chioggia and radicchio di Treviso. Both Chioggia and Treviso are two of the many towns in the Veneto region of Italy that have domesticated their own special variety of the sturdy radicchio.
“I find Chioggia and Treviso interchangeable in many recipes,” says Kline, “although the round Chioggia head might lend itself more to shredding and its leaves as pockets for stuffing, and the long slender leaves of Treviso might suggest suitable scoops for dipping. But their flavors, textures and beautiful red-and-white colors are very similar.”
For more information on Royal Rose Radicchio, visit www.radicchio.com.
Photo: Not only does fat surround the bitter flavor compounds of radicchio, mellowing them, but also the clean, bitter flavors in radicchio cut the unctuousness of some fatty ingredients, making an extremely pleasing flavor combo.