Originally published April 10, 2015
By Providence Cicero, Taste contributor
JASON SALVO adores radicchio. At Local Roots Farm in the Snoqualmie River valley, Salvo and his wife, Siri Erickson-Brown, grow five varieties. They tracked down and treasure a 30-year-old cookbook, “Il Radicchio in Cucina” by Italian chef Armando Zanotto, devoted solely to those flamboyant, bitter, red chicories, first cultivated in the late 1800s in the cool mainland surrounding Venice.
The variety most familiar in this country is radicchio di Chioggia, the round, tight, dark-red heads commonly found in supermarkets, but there are other types, each named for its town of origin. Rosso di Verona has a small oval shape with looser leaves. Treviso has an elongated head with purple-red leaves. Castelfranco is the most beautiful of all. Milder than the others, its loose, tender, variegated leaves, speckled with deep red to pale green, unfold like a rose, the perfect illustration of what the Italians call “the edible flower.”
Locally grown Castelfranco peaks from late summer through winter, when you’ll find it at farmers markets. Much of the rest of the year, Frank’s Quality Produce at Pike Place Market carries Castelfranco from California, and beyond, to meet the demand of restaurants they supply.
Castelfranco first caught my eye last winter at [now-closed] Le Petit Cochon in Fremont atop a bowl of curried carrot and rutabaga soup. “It comes and goes like the wind,” says chef Derek Ronspies. Lately, he’s been putting a different spin on it. “I ferment it like you would kimchi, to get a little funk on it, and throw in some other flavors — ginger, garlic, cilantro, turmeric, cumin, pepper and a little Kashmir curry (from World Spice).”
Castelfranco is a regular at Matt Dillon’s restaurants, too. It was prominent in a gorgeous chicory salad I recall from London Plane that included Treviso, watermelon radishes, cucumber, avocado and chickpeas.
“Castelfranco tends to be less bitter and more tender than its fellow radicchios, so I try not to overdress it in a salad,” says Rand Rasheed, who grows it at One Leaf Farm. He prefers a simple Champagne vinaigrette made with good olive oil, lemon juice and minced shallots, but he might also simply use olive oil and salt. Ronspies would add a little lemon zest. Salvo, too, favors lemon and olive oil, sometimes letting sliced pears marinate in the dressing before tossing it with the Castelfranco.
Radicchio’s bitterness is off-putting to some.
“When we put it in the CSA boxes, people complain,” says Salvo, “but I sell heaps to restaurants.”
He eats so much Castelfranco, he claims he doesn’t notice the bitterness anymore and recommends a quick turn on the grill to make it taste sweeter. “Cut the heads in half, quarters or smaller, leaving the base intact. Toss them with oil, and grill over hot coals for a couple of minutes on each side until cooked through. Finish them with a balsamic vinaigrette, salt, pepper, and lots of chopped parsley and grated Parmesan. Try it with grilled peaches in the summer.”
At [now-closed] Sitka & Spruce, chefs Dillon and Logan Cox turn Castelfranco into a bittersweet, ruby-red conserve by cooking it with simple syrup and aromatics. They suggest pairing it with grilled or braised pork or lamb, fuller-flavored fish such as mackerel or sardines, even your favorite stinky cheese.
As the Italians say about radicchio: “If you look at it, you’ll smile; if you eat it, you’ll be in heaven.”
Yields about 2 cups
2 to 3 heads Castelfranco radicchio, finely chopped (about 1¾ to 2 pounds)
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
½ cup white wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1. Combine all ingredients in a heavy-bottomed pot, and place on high heat.
2. Once the liquid reaches a boil, lower the heat to medium high. Reduce the liquid for at least 20 minutes, or until it reaches a syrupy consistency. Stir frequently with a rubber spatula, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan to avoid scorching.
3. Place conserve in a jar, seal and refrigerate to chill.
— From Sitka & Spruce