It’s bitterly cold and we’re heading towards the shortest day of the year. You’d be forgiven for thinking that from here on in, we’ll be eating our way through sacks of root vegetables, consigned to dishes with savoury but perhaps somewhat predictable, wholesome flavours. In actual fact, some produce at this time of year packs a serious punch. With the drop in temperatures, the plants left in the garden have to focus their energy on survival, slowing down growth and converting starch to sugar. This natural defence mechanism is what makes brassicas – kale, broccoli, cabbage, cavolo nero – taste so good. Their leaves are tender and meaty with a sweetness rarely found in the fast-growing autumn harvests.
It’s not just winter greens that are brightened amidst the darkness. Radicchios, Italy’s answer to the endive, are at this very moment preparing to embark upon their captivating winter run. These chicories come into their own during the cold months, bursting onto the scene with vivid colours and even more complex flavours. Bitter yet sweet, crisp yet tender – it’s their contradictory, seemingly impossible nature that I find so delightful and that provides us with much-needed winter brilliance.
In Italy, radicchio is at the heart of winter cooking. Extracting every drop of flavour and making every possible use of an ingredient is what Italians are so good at, and radicchio presents an exceptionally good challenge. Over the course of the season, you’ll see radicchio complimented by a tang of citrus in a raw salad; grilled in quarters to bring out its natural sugars; roasted whole and served with fish and salsa verde. Being both bitter and sweet, it makes an incredibly versatile ingredient and one that, when I wake up and see the first frosts, I can’t wait to start cooking with again.
Radicchio, pancetta & gorgonzola risotto
In this Veneto-inspired dish, I’ve used radicchio Treviso, which is the bullet-shaped variety of these wonderful winter chicories. You could use any variety you can lay your hands on – the easiest to find is the round Chioggia and the most special is the Tardivo, which has beautifully curled, crisp leaves. In this recipe, red wine replaces the white you’d normally use for a risotto and the delicious Italian blue cheese goes in the place of the butter and parmesan.
80g cubed pancetta
1 medium red onion, finely diced
1tbs olive oil
1 clove garlic
250g radicchio (I used three small heads)
200ml red wine
200g risotto rice
1l stock (I used vegetable but chicken would be best)
30g gorgonzola (roquefort or stilton would work as well)
- Pop a large, deep sided frying pan onto a medium heat and tip in the olive oil. Once the pan is hot, add in the pancetta. Fry until just starting to brown, then tip in the diced onion.
Sweat the onion until translucent, stirring regularly so that the pancetta doesn’t burn. After a couple of minutes grate or crush in the clove of garlic.
- Meanwhile prepare the radicchio. Holding the chicory by the root end, slice the leaves widthways into 0.5cm strips, all in one go. You should be left with ribbons of radicchio and an inch of stalk, which you can pop into your compost bin.
- Bring your stock to a boil and then turn down to the lowest heat to keep warm.
- Once the onions are softened, add in half of the radicchio leaves. Stir for a minute and then turn up the heat to high. Pour in the red wine and cook for two minutes, stirring constantly.
- Add in the rice and ‘toast’ for a minute or so – you should be able to smell the savoury toastiness of the rice.
- Pour in the first ladle of stock and stir, then turn the heat down to medium. Cook for around 20 minutes, adding the stock ladle by ladle until totally absorbed. Stir pretty much constantly – I recommend having a glass of wine in hand and a friend standing by the stove to chat to.
- Once the rice is almost completely cooked – there should just be the tiniest bite (al dente taste) in the rice, remove from the heat. Stir in the remaining radicchio and leave to stand for a minute.
To serve, dot with little chunks of gorgonzola.