By: Janet H. Sanchez
Radicchio, that expensive and somewhat bitter-tasting salad ingredient from Italy, is decidedly beautiful. It is also difficult to grow to perfection. All too often what was to become a tightly formed head develops in my garden into a loose bunch of astoundingly bitter leaves, even when I plant in fall, as is recommended.
Though I still experiment with new varieties of radicchio from time to time, I've found its relatives to be every bit as interesting in salads and much more reliable when it comes to producing an edible fall crop. Unlike other salad greens such as lettuce or spinach, they germinate readily in warm summer soil and mature their robust flavors to perfection in the cooler temperatures of autumn. And chicories are virtually a disease- and pest-free crop, at worst attracting only a few slugs and snails.
The radicchio relations I focus on here include the chicories that form green heads, in some varieties very large, in others diminutive, as well as the assorted Catalogna chicories, some of which are grown for their slender toothed leaves and others for their hollow flower shoots that vaguely resemble asparagus. As with all chicories, they prefer cool temperatures between 55° F and 75° F, but they are more tolerant of both heat and cold than radicchio, hence their wide adaptability. All of these chicories (as well as Belgian endive and the coffee substitute, Magdeburg chicory) are classified by botanists as Cichorium intybus. These plants are technically perennials, but when destined for the kitchen are usually treated as annuals or biennials.
Each of these "other" chicories has its own unique flavor, though always overlaid with at least a touch of the bitterness characteristic of the species. How pronounced that bitterness is depends both on the variety, the stage of growth and the weather at harvesttime. The leaves of young seedlings are not as bitter as those of mature plants, for example. Chicories picked in the cool weather of early spring or late fall are quite delicious, but warm temperatures can render any variety pretty much inedible. That dash of bitterness, if not too overpowering, is a welcome change from the rather sweet and bland flavors of common salad greens. By the way, chicories are extraordinarily high in vitamin A and also provide a fair share of vitamin C and calcium.
This chicory somewhat resembles a very tightly headed Cos lettuce, growing up to 14 inches tall and weighing as much as two pounds. It can be harvested as individual leaves or allowed to form a head, and with both techniques, it can be grown as a cut-and-come-again crop. When the head is allowed to mature, the tightly packed nugget of inner leaves is naturally blanched so it's slightly sweeter than the outer leaves--hence the name "sugar loaf." These silky golden inner leaves are a favorite in my California kitchen, though I generally mix them with milder lettuces when preparing winter salads. The leaves can also be braised briefly in broth to make a delicious vegetable dish.