Buenos Aires – I thought about writing an Ode to Radicchio, but my poetry talents are nearly non-existent and limited to reasonably good attempts at haiku. I searched for an ode online and didn’t find one, though I did find one to arugula that more or less dismissed radicchio in one stanza. It’s not one of the world’s most popular vegetables, except perhaps, in Italy, and by extension, is at least readily available here, though I’m not sure the average Argentine is the one buying it. It’s a member of the chicory family, it’s roots can be dried and ground to be added to coffee, like many a chicory. It’s leaves contain intybin, a blood and liver tonic – in fact Pliny the Elder listed it in his Naturalis Historia as a blood purifier and cure for insomnia. It comes in several varieties, from globe shaped to torpedo shaped, but all share similar flavor characteristics.
It’s very common in Italian cooking to either grill radicchio or saute it in olive oil. When I grabbed a head of it the other day it was on a whim, but I think that was rooted in an affinity for sauteing in olive oil combined with some reading I’d been doing about slow cooking in oil. Not the new craze for sous vide, which requires vacuum packing and slow cooking (it’s not a new idea – I grew up with boil-in-the-bag meals, it’s just a lower temperature and longer cooking of the same thing, to produce a more tender and flavorful result). I was thinking more in the lines of very slow poaching – some of the best things I’ve ever eaten were cooked that way – Antoine Bouterin’s spoon lamb; Tetsuya Wakuda’s olive oil poached ocean trout; any of a dozen truly wonderful duck confits…
I did a quick search for radicchio confit online, and only came up with three entries from menus, via Google – one a mixed endive and radicchio sweet and sour confit, a combination of vegetables that is sort of redundant other than the color, another that was cabbage and radicchio, and only one for radicchio solo. All were paired as accompaniments for beef. I decided to treat the head of radicchio much as I would meat – which for me meant starting by brining it – cleaned, sliced into wedges (a dozen from the head), and soaked for a day at room temperature in a brine of 2 cups of water, ¼ cup of salt, ¼ cup of sugar, 2 smashed cloves of garlic, 2 cloves, 1 teaspoon of dried thyme leaves, and 1 teaspoon of mixed peppercorns. I placed a heavy plate on top to keep the leaves submerged.
Not that it looks all that different after brining, but the leaves have tenderized, the edge of bitterness that characterizes this vegetable when raw has been drawn out by the salt and sugar, and it’s absorbed much of the herb and spice flavor, much more deeply than if it had just been quickly sauteed. I drained and dried the wedges, keeping all the spices and such with them, and then packed them tightly into a small casserole dish and just barely covered them in olive oil – roughly a cup. I added about half a teaspoon more of dried thyme leaves just because being so small, a good number of them had drained away, I didn’t want to replace all the spices, especially something like the garlic, which had also mellowed in the brine. Packed a piece of tin foil tightly on top to keep the leaves under the oil, and then, stuck the casserole in the oven at low heat – just under 175Â°F (80Â°C) – you want to keep it below boiling, right about the point that would be considered well done for meat.
After six hours in a slow oven the whole thing had come together beautifully. The radicchio itself has darkened without browning, and it’s taken on a certain transluscent quality from the oil it has absorbed. It’s not quite the same as meat, where the idea in slow, low heat cooking, is to dissolve the collagen that makes meat chewy, resulting in “spoon tender” meat, but it’s akin – the texture changes to one that is clearly solid, but no longer crunchy – it avoids the wilting that occurs over direct heat, and the wedges stay nicely intact. The garlic, too, has softened and poached through, and makes a nice accompaniment served along with the radicchio. I let the radicchio stay in its oil until cool, then put it in the refrigerator overnight. Obivously this is a long process, but could be speeded up to a single day – brine overnight, poach during the work day, and let steep in the oil until later in the evening when you make dinner – I doubt the flavors would be all that different.
Given that there were only two of us eating, I had enough radicchio to make two dishes (separate days). For the first dish I wanted to make something that clearly left the radicchio as the main flavor component. That meant something simple like pasta – and indeed, one of my favorite Italian pasta dishes is simply sauteed radicchio with garlic and olive oil. Because of the depth of flavor after the confit process I decided on a slightly heartier pasta, so picked up some spinach ravioli filled with ricotta. I rewarmed half the radicchio over low heat in a saucepan, and because I wanted to be able to scatter the leaves I first cut the ends of the wedges off so that the leaves could be tossed in with the ravioli. A very simple dish, despite the length of time for preparation, and absolutely delicious – the radicchio turned out just as I’d imagined it.
There’s a reason some combinations of ingredients are considered classics. Somewhere before our time, thousands upon thousands of chefs and cooks have played around with varying combinations, and certain things just tend to pair well when tasted by a large number of folk. It doesn’t mean no one’s ever going to come up with a new combination, but it gets harder and harder every year. Radicchio is very often paired with beef, and also with walnuts, though usually not all three together. That’s a shame, because there’s no reason they won’t all work well together. I grilled up some thin round steaks. Meanwhile I toasted some chopped walnuts and rewarmed the remaining radicchio. Just before serving I tossed the radicchio with a touch of sour cream, plated the whole thing, including the confited garlic cloves, and sprinkled the toasted walnuts across the top. All I can say is, stunning.
Once red purple and bitter
Now darkened and sweet