Today’s subject is the red chicory known as radicchio. It is also sometimes known as Italian chicory. Belgium, France, Holland and Germany are major players in the chicory-forcing world (forcing is removing mature roots to a warm, dark place to force rapid and early growth), but Italy has contributed these red ones from the northern part of the country.
Italians use the word radicchio (rah-Deek-ee-oh) to describe all the different colors of chicories. In the United States, the word radicchio refers to the red-leafed varieties. There are about a dozen different red chicories grown here in Italy, and they all show up during winter, making them part of traditional holiday meals.
The picture above is of the Tardivo type of radicchio di Treviso. There’s also one called Precocem, which is the same color, but instead of forming twisted leaves, it forms a tall head shaped more like a Chinese cabbage head.
Forcing doesn’t require any real specialized equipment, and the basic idea is that a plant is dug up, held in a state of suspended animation in cool storage, and then stimulated to produce a flush of new leaf growth in a dark environment. To grow predictable salad greens during the winter, home gardeners can create a small forcing setup for radicchio. To do this, grow the plants in spring and summer, and then dig them in the fall, forcing them in winter.
Some growers dig the roots, cut back the tops very short; replant the roots, massed together in pots; and then cover the pots with other matching pots overhead, with the drainage hole taped shut. Moving the newly repotted roots into a slightly warmer environment will then induce the plants to produce new shoots. Other growers, like most of those who grow the Treviso tardivo in the photo, pack the harvested roots together in frames such as metal milk crates, and then submerge those crates in darkened rooms. Plants can be forced without digging them by piling up material to cover the plants that have or have not had their leaf crown cut back. In this way, the technique is more or less the same as with blanching.
Growers often do not force their whole harvest all at once, but rather, keep the bulk of the harvested roots stored in moist sand or compost in a cold place, and then gradually force a few plants at a time in order to produce a steady stream of fresh radicchio throughout the whole winter.
There are seeds available for non-forcing radicchio types, and the same effect is available to growers who live in warmer climates, where the plants are usually not dug, and often form heads without any forcing techniques required.
In our home, we eat radicchio in salads and as a holiday-plate garnish. I’ve also eaten radicchio in restaurants; the roasted leaves are pretty tasty.
Experimenting with forcing can be fun, mostly because it’s not really very hard at all. Dig some roots, clean them up and repackage them in some container, and then keep them slightly warm and dark for a few weeks. This technique also works on other plants with similar roots, such as dandelions. Forced dandelion greens are great in salads and baked vegetable dishes.