It isn't true what they say about cooking radicchio.
Few plants are as beautiful, and also as willing to blast you with bitterness as that brilliant purple and white head that lights up the produce section like neon and tastes vaguely like poison. Yet, we eat radicchio; the ones who know the secret to cooking it do, anyway.
Which is to say: don’t.
I challenge you to find a recipe for cooked radicchio that doesn’t include some reference to how braising or grilling or whatevering radicchio will soften, mellow, relax or otherwise temper its bitter bite. If there is anything that softens when you cook radicchio, it's the radicchio itself, which wilts into a damp heap. It has no texture, no body, and its purple majesty is now rendered in grayscale. But still the bitterness remains. All of it.
Meanwhile, the bitterness isn’t even a problem. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, human beings have a unique ability to acquire and enhance our taste for bitterness. But we are programmed to approach new bitter flavors, and bitter ingredients, with caution.
Most toxins are bitter, so we are wired to regard bitter flavors with extreme skepticism. But many things that are bitter in flavor (including toxins, depending on the dosage) can also be beneficial. Thus, we are born with the capacity to leap over the bitter barrier, and can actually come around to appreciate certain bitter flavors on a case-by-case basis.
Chocolate, coffee and beer, for example, have all earned passes despite their bitterness as we have learned that they are non-toxic — or even pleasantly intoxicating — and can help us out in various ways.
But the benefits of eating bitter vegetables are not so immediately obvious as, say, a cocktail that contains a shot of bitters. So acquiring these flavors requires you to pay attention to other metrics, like how your body feels. Or be open to the idea that bitter things can actually taste good.
When we talk about bitter, we aren’t talking about a single bitter flavor, but many different ones, including the flavors of vitamins, antioxidants, stimulants and various biologically active plant compounds called phytonutrients. To the untrained palate these may all taste identical, but there is complexity to be found among various shades of bitter as we relax into them, stop running and learn to enjoy them. And there are more complex flavors to be created by combining radicchio with other ingredients, which isn’t to be confused with cooking it.
Jennifer McLagan, author of the award-winning Bitter: A taste of the world's most dangerous flavor, likens bitterness to a kind of wizened charisma, "… a silver haired man in a tailored suit, with a hint of a bad-boy aura about him."
Alas, her book includes recipes for cooked radicchio. We all have our blind spots. Still, she nails the allure of bitter flavor for the sake of bitter flavor.
"Bitter," she writes, "is a cultured, intriguing, and sophisticated taste, with a dangerous side. Who could be more fun to cook or to dine with?"
My wife, who would would sooner dine with a bowl of radicchio than her husband, would concur.
As it happens, we live on a radicchio sanctuary, of which she is caretaker, lead researcher, top slug murderer and executive salad dressing maker. She is so far past the bitter barrier that bitter tastes better to her than sweet. In addition to the radicchio we also grow other members of the chicory family, of which radicchio is a member, like endive, escarole and dandelion. All of these are bitter, but radicchio is the only one of the lot that is routinely cooked, perhaps because it resembles cabbage, which is also bitter but comes from a different family entirely and, unlike radicchio, actually does sweeten when cooked.
My wife eats radicchio the way normal people eat chips and salsa, by dipping one into the other. She peels the leaves off a head, or slices a head into wedges, and dips these radicchio subunits into her special dressing, which consists of two parts extra virgin olive oil, one part soy sauce, one part vinegar (the vinegar portion being equal parts cider and balsamic vinegars), and half a lime for each cup of dressing. A typical dinner consists of 6-10 radicchio heads, or a massive bowl of leaves from the sanctuary, from where the harvest of entire heads is frowned upon.
This dressing is designed to celebrate, rather than hide the bitterness. It all tastes amazing together, and she has literally gotten me doing the same thing, albeit at about a head a day. She says eating all that radicchio makes her body feel good — approximately as good as coffee, beer and chocolate make normal people feel.
I say, why choose?
Some may consider it cheating to incorporate chocolate and beer into a radicchio salad dressing, but I call it science. I tried coffee but it doesn’t work, for scientific reasons that are too complex to get into here.
By surrounding the bitter flavors of radicchio with bitter flavors from elsewhere, the bitter jolt of a naked bite exists in a context that softens the bitter with complexity, rather than heat.
In addition to the beer — a citrusy IPA, ideally — and the chocolate, which is added in the form of powdered hot cocoa mix, which dissolves much more easily than cocoa powder, the dressing contains bitter notes from olive oil, garlic powder and cumin as well. These bitter flavors are countered by the sweetness of the hot chocolate mix, and acidity from the vinegar, lime juice and the beer. In addition to the olive oil, other forms of fat like cheese, bacon or mayo are welcome as well. I also like some spicy hot in there with my bitters.
Chocolate radicchio dressing
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon hot cocoa powder
¼ cup balsamic
4 Tablespoons IPA beer, preferably a citrus-y brew
1 Tablespoon lime or lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 fat pinches cumin
Combine ingredients, adding IPA last, which turns the dressing into a dramatic bubbling brew. Season to taste by dipping leaves and testing. When it tastes right, continue dipping your leaves into the dressing. Or use the dressing to flavor goodies that you can wrap in radicchio. Those purple leaves may not like being cooked themselves, but wrapped around rich foods, they not only add a dignified dose of bitterness, but hold it all together for perfect mouthfuls every time.
So far, my favorite use of my new dressing is to toss rounds of pan-fried sausage in it, and place those in a radicchio leaf with blue cheese, raw shallot, pine nuts, a slice of jalapeno, and another dollop of dressing. Fold, insert in mouth, bliss out bitterly, repeat.
If you care to dine with silverware, make a salad by chopping radicchio and tossing it with sliced onions, cheese, nuts and other strong ingredients and drenching it with chocolate salad dressing.
If these mouthfuls of bittered and sweetened bitterness don’t turn you into a believer, it may not be in the cards. But at least you didn't waste any time, or radicchio, by cooking it into limp submission.