We eat with our eyes first, the saying goes. But of course we also shop with our eyes. We reach for the vibrant orange bunch carrots, the satsuma with its glossy dark leaves attached, the exotic green zebra-striped tomatoes. Lately, as I’ve been photographing ingredients as well as cooking them, the beauty in food has become both more interesting, and, interestingly, more abundant.
If beauty is not on the surface, it may be on the inside. If not the fruit, them perhaps the stem, or the seed. Certain ingredients are born homely; think russet potato or the featureless jicama. At a glance fresh turmeric looks like a cat turd. The industrialization of agriculture hasn’t helped, either, with its drive to standardize, which results in a uniform blandness. But back to that potato: it may not be conventionally handsome, but in the right light is full of dignity. Up close, fresh turmeric has a fascinating pattern of scales, and just under the peel, its signature saffron tint.
But radicchio, member of the chicory family, is a star, beautiful both in front of the camera and on the table, particularly Treviso and some of the imported varieties. The leaf colors are deep and saturated, the ribs and veins pure white and sharply delineated. Slice a little head of radicchio in half and the moist colors swirl like the marbled endpapers of a Moroccan bound book. (Stealing a simile from an old Saveur—too perfect a description.)
And, perhaps a surprise, it is as versatile as it is beautiful. Radicchios add color and contrast to salads; a favorite is tricolore, balancing sharp red radicchio, crunchy white Belgian endive, and peppery green wild arugula, preferably tossed in a shallot-infused sherry vinaigrette. Radicchios hold up well when cooked. They are wonderful grilled or roasted, succulent and slightly bitter-sweet, packing a lot of vegetable essence into each bite, which is so welcome in winter, radicchio’s season. They’re also great in risotto and pasta.
Whether because of its sexy Italian provenance (though most of our radicchio is now grown in California) or use as a sturdy red leaf in ubiquitous bagged “mesclun” mix, radicchio has become popular in the U.S. despite its bitterness, a taste we usually don’t like. What we generically call radicchio in the supermarket is rosa di Chioggia. It looks like a baby purple cabbage; heads should be firm and heavy for their size without any blemishes. Also available in good markets is Treviso, tapered like Belgian endive though larger, and with a deep wine color. In wintertime, other radicchios arrive from Italy, including the delicate, pale, speckled Castelfranco, pretty as a tousled rose, or Tardive, with its eerily curled leaves. Both have a more tender, sweeter profile. The names of these and other Italian varieties come from towns in the Veneto where, in the 1860s, modern radicchio came into being through the efforts of a Belgian agronomist.
Here’s an easy and soulful dish for a weekend lunch or light supper for two. The ingredients are basic, and you probably already have most of them: one large head of radicchio, cut into quarters, cored, and sliced lengthwise into ribbons; half an onion, finely chopped; one cup short grain Italian rice like Carnaroli, Nano Vialone, or Arborio; a few tablespoons of olive oil, quarter-cup of white wine or white vermouth, 2 TB butter, 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, salt and pepper, and optional tablespoon of brandy. Notice there’s no broth—you could use it, but this is delicious with just water.
Here are the steps: bring eight to ten cups of lightly salted water to the boil (it should taste seasoned, but not salty). Meanwhile, in a four-quart or larger sauce pan with deep sides, heat the olive oil over medium-low until it simmers and add the chopped onion, season with salt, and cook slowly for ten minutes until the onion is softened but not browned. Turn up the heat to medium-high, add radicchio, stirring, then once the radicchio is wilted add the rice, stirring to toast the individual grains in the oil (add more olive oil if needed). Next come the liquids: turn heat to high, add the 1/4 cup white wine or vermouth and cook, stirring, until evaporated, then add 1 cup of the boiling water and cook, stirring, until the water is almost evaporated, and repeat for the next ten minutes. As the rice cooks, releasing its starch, the dish will start to look soupy and the radicchio will stain the rice maroon. Test the rice; it should start to soften. Continue cooking and stirring, now adding 1/2 cup of water at a time, until the rice is cooked but still a little al dente.
Finish by adding the cheese, butter, and optional brandy, and stir furiously as everything begins to fuse. Taste for seasoning and serve immediately in bowls, garnished with parsley and more grated cheese as desired. Enjoy at a table by a window, preferably with snow falling, or in front of the fire. If it’s lunch, have a glass of wine—you’ll feel like you’re on vacation.