Rooting for Radicchio

Radicchio (Cichorium intybus) is a variety of common chicory, along with which includes Belgian endive and puntarelle. They all belong to the chicory genus, which includes several similar bitter-leafed vegetables, along with curly endive and escarole (Cichorium endivia), and wild chicory (Cichorium pumilum). The chicory genus belongs to the Asteraceae family, along with the herbs arnica, burdock, boneset, calendula, chamomile, cronewort (mugwort), coltsfoot, dandelion, echinacea, elecampane, feverfew, gravel root, grindelia, liferoot, milk thistle, tansy, yarrow, valerian, wormwood, and wild lettuce. The family also contains the foods sunflower seedslettuce, true artichokes, and sun chokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes). And it contains the decorative flowers asters, chrysanthemums, dahlias, bachelor’s buttons, daisies, cosmos, coneflowers, goldenrods, sunflowers, and zinnias. Radicchio (pronounced ra-dee-kyoh) is sometimes known as Italian chicory, and is a perennial. It is grown as a leaf vegetable which usually has white-veined red leaves. It has a bitter and spicy taste, which mellows when it is grilled or roasted.

Humans have been using radicchio since ancient times. Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) wrote of it in Naturalis Historia, praising its medicinal properties; he claimed it was useful as a blood purifier and an aid for insomnia. In fact, radicchio contains intybin, a sedative and analgesic.

First cultivated in the cool Veneto province of northeastern Italy (the mainland surrounding Venice), the mass cultivation of radicchio likely began on Chioggia Island, where the plant’s mineral content was noted to leave behind a far healthier soil than had originally existed. In the Middle Ages it was especially popular among monks, who welcomed anything that would add zest and flavor to the simple, plant-based diets proscribed by their orders. Radicchio also figured prominently on the tables of nobles, both cooked and raw: In 1537 Pietro Aretino advised a friend who had a garden to plant it, saying he much preferred it to “aroma-free lettuce and endive.”

Modern cultivation of radicchio began in the fifteenth century, in the Veneto and Trentino regions of Italy, but the deep-red radicchio of today was engineered in 1860 by the Belgian agronomist Francesco Van den Borre, who used a technique called imbianchimento (whitening), preforcing, or blanching to create the dark red, white-veined leaves. Radicchio plants are taken from the ground and placed in water in darkened sheds, where lack of light and ensuing inhibition of chlorophyll production cause the plants to lose their green pigmentation.

Radicchio, like other chicory vegetables, is very low in calories: 100 grams of fresh leaves provide just 23 calories. The bitter flavor in radicchio is lactucopicrin (intybin), a sesquiterpene lactone. Lactucopicrin is a potent anti-malarial agent and has a sedative and analgesic (painkiller) effect. Radicchio is an excellent source of phenolic flavonoid antioxidants such as zea-xanthin and lutein: 100 grams of radicchio provides 8832 µg of these pigments. Zea-xanthin is a xanthophyll category of flavonoid carotenoid (yellow pigment) which concentrates mainly in the central retina in your eyes. Together with lutein, it helps protect your eyes from age-related macular disease (ARMD) by filtering harmful ultra-violet rays.

Fresh radicchio is an excellent sources of vitamin K and copper. It’s a very good source of folatevitamin E, and vitamin C. It’s a good source of iron, potassium, manganese, zinc, phosphorus, and pantothenic acid, and a moderate source of vitamin B6carbohydratesproteinmagnesiumfiberriboflavin, calcium, and niacin.

Nutrients in 100 Grams of Radicchio

Nutrient

Amount

DV

vitamin K 255.2 µg

212%

copper 0.341 mg

38%

folate 60 µg

15%

vitamin E 2.26 mg

15%

vitamin C 8 mg

13%

iron 0.57 mg

7%

potassium 302 mg

6%

manganese 0.138 mg

6%

zinc 0.62 mg

6%

phosphorus 40 mg

5.5%

pantothenic acid 0.269 mg

5%

vitamin B6 0.057 mg

4%

carbohydrates 4.48 g

3.5%

protein 1.43 g

3%

magnesium 13 mg

3%

fiber 0.9 g

2%

riboflavin 0.028 mg

2%

calcium 19 mg

2%

niacin 0.255 mg

1.5%

sodium 22 mg

1.5%

Calories 23

1%

fat 0.25 g

1%

thiamine 0.016 mg

1%

vitamin A 27 IU

1%

selenium 0.9 µg

1%

cholesterol 0 mg

0%

Carotene-ß 16 µg
Carotene-α 0 µg
Cryptoxanthin-ß 0 µg
Lutein-zeaxanthin 8832 µg

Select fresh, compact, bright wine-red colored heads with prominent mid-ribs. Closely look for cracks, spots, or mechanical bruising on the leaves. Treviso and Chioggia varieties should have tight, compact leaves, whereas Verona types feature open, loose leaves.

At home, store radicchio inside the crisper section of your refrigerator set at temperature below 8° Celsius (46.4° Fahrenheit)  with relative humidity of around 90% for up to 2-3 weeks. If it looks slightly wilted, stand it in a glass of water.

To prepare, trim the outer leaves as you do it in cabbage. Wash the head in cool running water. Cut the head into quarters, wedges, and use in cooking. You can use the root section as you would a radish or other root vegetable. Many cooks trim the tips of the leaves of radicchio, and use them to garnish the dishes that they make.

Radicchio is a favorite winter-season salad vegetable in Southern Europe. In Italy, where radicchio is quite popular, it is usually eaten grilled in olive oil, or mixed into dishes such as risotto. Its chunks are grilled gently with added olive oil, artichoke hearts, and beans in a delicious radicchio salad. Radicchio risotto and pasta are popular winter recipes in the Northern Italian region. It can also be served with pasta, in strudel, as a stuffing, or as part of a tapenade. In the United States, radicchio is gaining in popularity but is more often eaten raw in salads. Raw leaves have a sharp, pungent flavor. Exposure to more intense daylight makes its leaves bitter, which is somewhat mellowed once cooked.

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