RARE FIND: RADICCHIO TARDIVO
November mornings at the Union Square Greenmarket don’t bring much in the way of exotica, unless you count the turreted chartreuse heads of romanesco cauliflower, fantastically feathered hen of the woods mushrooms, and possibly—no, definitely—the elegant Rastafarian gentleman who channels Joseph in his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
The past couple of weeks have brought a showstopper, though, in the form of radicchio tardivo—a blanched type of Treviso radicchio from Tim Stark’s Eckerton Hill Farm, in Lenhartsville, Pennsylvania. With curved, dazzling-white ribs fringed by long, narrow wine-dark leaves, this member of the chicory clan is known in Italy as a fiori d’inverno (“flower of winter”), and prized as one of the most beautiful vegetables of the season. When grown in the Veneto region, it’s sold as Radicchio Rosso Tardivo di Treviso IGP; the initials, which stand for “Indicazione Geografica Protetta,” signify it’s been awarded a certified geographical designation by the Italian authorities, just like a terroir-specific balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico di Modena) or cured meat (Mortadella di Bologna).
Like all delicacies, tardivo doesn’t come cheap—Stark is selling his for $16 a pound—and that is because of its labor-intensive cultivation. “I have to say deer and groundhogs love it,” said Stark. “We had to put up a deer fence. And what you see is just the inner tendrils, the heart, of the plant. But talk to Chris—he’s the one who brought the seeds back from Italy and did all the work.”
Eckerton’s Chris Field was on vacation in Florida, but happy to talk tardivo. He’d done his due diligence for two years, sussing out a high-quality seed source near Padua and getting a feel for the complicated growing process, in part through Pioneer Valley farmer Tim Wilcox, who had written his college thesis on tardivo growing methods in Italy.
“When you plant the seed is very important,” Field explained. “We started in trays in the greenhouse in mid-July and transplanted to the field in mid-August. You let it grow, keep it weeded and watered, until the root gets sizable.”
The plants are harvested after the first couple of frosts, and that’s when the fun starts. You dig down under the plant in order to bring up the taproot; if you inadvertently snap off the plant at the top, it’s a goner. The roots are trimmed to four to five inches in length, dead leaves are removed, and then the plants are put in water and left in the dark (which halts the production of chlorophyll), where shoots begin to grow again.
This process, called imbianchimento and based on that used to blanch Belgian endive, was developed in the 1860s by Belgian agronomist Francesco Van Den Borre. It can be elaborate on a large scale, but is a bit more ad hoc at Eckerton. “The plants are in tubs in the basement at Tim’s,” said Field. “And I change the water every other day. In ten days to two weeks, you have the best growth—they sweeten up and the leaves are dark maroon. Then you peel away any crappy leaves and cut the root—which is absolutely delicious, by the way.”
So is all that effort worth it? Yes. Tardivo has a lovely bitter-sweet balance and a satiny, sublime crisp-tender texture. It’s versatile, too, which is one reason restaurant chefs are all over it like white on rice. It’s wonderful grilled, sautéed, basted with olive oil and baked, or stirred into risotto. Like any bitter green, tardivo has a great affinity for a hot bacon dressing, and it gives an edgy, wild flavor to a salad of fennel and (hooray!) the season’s first satsumas. And in Marcella Hazan’s Radicchio and Warm Bean Salad (recipe below), it seduces with that particular, exquisite Italianate blend of austerity and luxuriousness.
In fact, it’s made me look at the most familiar variety of radicchio, called Chioggia, with fresh eyes. That tight, round head of maroon leaves veined with white was the gateway bitter green for many Americans: Twenty-five years ago, Italian farmer and winemaker Lucio Gomiero began cultivating it in the Salinas Valley of California. The company he formed with Italian grower Carlo Boscolo and two local farmers helped fuel the growth of the prepackaged-salad industry, which valued both the bright color and sturdiness of Chioggia’s chewy-crisp leaves. Today, the firm (formerly European Vegetable Specialties and now called Royal Rose) is the largest producer of radicchio in the world.
Admittedly, tardivo is a splurge, but it’s worth adding any radicchio—including regular Treviso, which grows in a loose-leafed, elongated head (like romaine), or Chioggia—to your culinary repertoire. The vegetable is an excellent source of vitamins C, E, and K, as well as folate and dietary fiber, and a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2005 found that Chioggia is higher in total phenols—plant antioxidants—than most other vegetables and fruits. In fact, recently it’s been certified as a Superfood, a category that includes blueberries, kale, broccoli, and pomegranates. This would not be news to Pliny the Elder, who, in the first century A.D., was well aware of the medicinal properties of “the marvelous red-lined lettuces of the Veneto.” He noted in Naturalis Historia that they were good for insomnia and purified the blood. That works for me.
Shopping tip: The Royal Rose website has some savvy information on how to choose a good head of Chioggia radicchio, which is what most of us end up with at the grocery store. Bigger is fresher, it turns out; a head should weigh at least half a pound. The reason some are the size of tennis balls is that the outer leaves wilt when the heads are stored or shipped for any length of time, and they’re trimmed, sometimes repeatedly, to preserve their appearance.
Radicchio and Warm Bean Salad
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)
For 4 to 6 servings
In a perfect world, I’d always make this salad with radicchio tardivo, but regular Treviso is absolutely delicious, too. Chioggia can be a bit too assertive for some people, so taste it first. If it’s too bitter for you, then do as Marcella did (God bless!) and cut the radicchio with some Belgian endive to tip the balance toward milder flavor. She also shared a secret she learned from the radicchio growers of Chioggia. “It can be made to taste sweeter,” she wrote, “by splitting the head in half, then shredding it fine on the diagonal.”
Cranberry beans, 2 pounds fresh, or 1 cup dried, soaked, drained, and cooked until tender
1 pound radicchio or Belgian endive, or a blend of the two
Extra-virgin olive oil
Choice quality red-wine vinegar
Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
1. If using fresh beans: Shell them and put them in a pot with enough cold, unsalted water to cover by about 2 inches. Bring the water to a gentle simmer, cover the pot, and cook at a slow, steady pace until tender, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Time their preparation so they will still be warm when assembling the salad. You can also cook the beans a day or so ahead of time; let them cool completely before refrigerating them in their liquid.
2. Hotten up the fresh or cooked dried beans if necessary. Meanwhile, detach the leaves from the head of radicchio, discarding any blemished ones. Slice them into narrow strips about ¼ inch wide, soak in cold water for a few minutes, drain, and either spin-dry or shake dry in a towel. Put the radicchio in a serving bowl.
3. Drain the hot beans and immediately add to the radicchio. Season with salt and toss once. Drizzle with enough olive oil to coat well and add a dash of vinegar and liberal grindings of pepper. Toss thoroughly and serve at once.