Of the five taste sensations, bitter is often the toughest sell, the one we come around to last. For many of us, we discover its pleasant edge through coffee, dark chocolate or perhaps licorice. In the produce department, you’ll find varying degrees of natural bitterness in escarole, broccoli rabe, eggplant, curly endive, mustard and dandelion greens … and in deep red radicchio.
A form of chicory, radicchio enjoys a long, storied history in Italy. Roman scholar and prolific author Pliny the Elder wrote of its medicinal benefits in Naturalis Historia around 77 AD, claiming that it was good for insomnia and purifying the blood. Its culinary history dates back centuries too, but Americans are fairly recent converts to its bitter charm. Once found only in specialty stores here, radicchio has become increasingly mainstream in recent years, turning up in supermarkets everywhere. Its crunch and bitter bite even add interest to bagged lettuce mixes. While we tend to enjoy it raw and in small doses, as a salad accent, Italian cooks prefer to grill or roast it.
Whether or not radicchio will cure your insomnia, it’s a rich source of dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals. And studies show that the antioxidant content in radicchio is higher than that of spinach and blueberries. If you’re looking for seasonal ingredients, cool weather-loving radicchio is in season in late fall (as in right now) and late spring.
Here, I’ve roasted radicchio, which slightly tames its bitterness (but only slightly), and paired it with white beans, tomatoes, garlic, shallots and sage. Easy to prepare, this dish makes for a handsome presentation. I served it with quickly sautéed pork chops. The radicchio’s distinctive flavor played equally well with the beans and the pork.
Roasted Radicchio with White Beans and Tomatoes
Serves 4 as a side, 2 as a meal
1 head radicchio, about 1/2 pound (see Kitchen Notes)
1/3 to 1/2 cup chopped shallot (you can also use yellow onion)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried sage (or 1 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth (or vegetable broth or water)
1 15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed (or great northern or navy)
1 cup canned diced tomatoes, drained
freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Discard loose outer leaves of head of radicchio (I peeled away two). Slice head lengthwise into four wedges. Brush wedges on all sides with olive oil and place cut sides up on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Season cut sides with salt, then turn wedges cut side down on the baking sheet and roast until slightly wilted and browned, 12 to 15 minutes, turning halfway through.
Give the radicchio about a 5-minute head start and then prepare the beans. Heat a generous tablespoon of oil in a large nonstick skillet over a medium flame. Add the shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until they begin to soften, 4 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and sage and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds, stirring constantly. Stir in wine and broth. Add beans and tomatoes to pan, season with ground pepper and stir to combine. Raise heat to medium high to bring liquid to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and simmer until beans and tomatoes are heated through. If radicchio wedges aren’t done yet, reduce heat under beans to very low to just keep them warm.
Arrange wedges of radicchio around edges of a rimmed platter or shallow serving bowl. (Handle them gently – they become somewhat fragile, and the leaves may separate.) Using a slotted spoon, heap bean/tomato mixture in the center and serve.
Choosing your radicchio. Look for fresh, unblemished heads of radicchio, with deep red, fleshy leaves and bright white ribs. They should feel slightly heavy for their size, indicating that they’re not dried out. Also, avoid overly small heads, which have probably been peeled excessively and may be older and dry.
Variations on a theme. First, making this dish vegetarian is simple – just substitute vegetable broth or water for the chicken broth. Also, sprinkling some toasted bread crumbs on top of the finished dish can give it another nice texture and taste. The panko bread crumbs I made for my Duck Breasts with White Beans and Sausage would be perfect for this.
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