Our first tour of the season, a walking and cycling tour of the Veneto and then Tuscany really demonstrates the regional variations of Italian cuisine. We cooked Venetian seafood specialties with a professional chef, then a few days later joined a Tuscan home cook in her kitchen. The one theme that unites them both us a deep appreciation for the products of their own regions, which still play a leading role in what they eat today.
In late spring here in Italy, I am finding the last of the winter Tardivo radicchio still available at my local fruit and vegetable market. Red radicchio is a chicory, a relative of the wild plant you can still find growing along the roadside today. It was introduced to the Venetian republic in the fifteenth century, and is became intensely cultivated especially in the Treviso area. Growers here developed many different varietals over the years, each providing a different flavor profile and different growing season.
There are two varieties of Radicchio Rosso di Treviso which are grown in and around Treviso, and both are protected by their own IGP quality designation. The Precoce variety appears first in the season, and has deep red leaves, with an elongated shape. It has the sweetest and most delicate flavor in the radicchio family. The second type, Tardivo, is more elongated, with a more pronounced vein. As with most radicchio, both undergo a forcing, or ‘whitening”, imbianchimento, in which field-harvested plants have their upper halves cut off, and then are replanted in running water. After a few days, the deep red inner ‘heart’ begins to grow, which is sweet and tender, with a touch of the original bitterness still remaining. The older outer leaves are removed and the heart is what you will see in the market.
The province of Vicenza has its own favorite variety of radicchio, with the center of production in Asigliano Veneto, in the southern part of the province, as well as the Berici Hills, Noventa Vicentina, Poiana Maggiore, Sossano and Orgiano. This particular variety is more compact and oval shaped, with dark red leaves and white veins. These are first planted in July, with a first harvest in October, and a second harvest in December. In December, the harvest does not mean the work is completed – the heads are piled and left in the field for a few weeks of final “ripening”.
The following recipe is from a small booklet of recipes dedicated solely to “Il Radicchio Rosso di Asigliano”. The booklet itself is quite interesting – I’ve included in the translation the very specific instructions on the ingredients, all very local specialties. Substituting what you can find at home will still produce a lovely and tasty risotto, but I’ve included the specific descriptions to give you the flavor of how an Italian understands local foods.
Risotto al Radicchio Rosso con Pere e Formaggio Morlacco
1/4 cup butter
1/2 red onion from Bassano, minced
1 head of radicchio rosso di Asigliano, thinly sliced (I used Tardivo, use what you can find)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
4-5 cups vegetable broth
1/2 cup Cabernet from Breganze
1 pear, homegrown or the “doyenne” of winter pear, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1/4 cup Vicentina grappa (grappa from Vicenza)
1 cup Vialone Nano di Grumello delle Abbadesse (the local heirloom variety of risotto rice, substitute Arborio or Carnaroli)
4 ounces Morlacco del Grappa cheese (a soft, lean cow’s milk cheese made from cows that graze on the Grappa plateau. Use a stronger flavored cheese of your choice)
1/2 cup grated grana cheese from Ponte di Barbarano
Heat half the butter in a large sauté pan. Add the onion and the sliced radicchio and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent, about 4-5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
In a large saucepan, heat the stock, keeping it just below a simmer.
Add the wine to the onions and radicchio. After the wine evaporates, add the cubed pears, half of the remaining butter, and sprinkle with the grappa. Cook until the pear cubes begin to brown. and set some of the best looking cunes aside for garnish.
Add the rice to the sauté pan with the onions, radicchio and pears. Stir for about 1 minute, until the grains are coated with the fat and liquid in the pan.
Add a couple of ladlefuls of the hot stock and again simmer, stirring gently, until the stock is absorbed. Continue adding the stock a ladleful at a time, stirring and waiting until the stock is absorbed before the next addition of stock. Continue until the rice is al dente. The stock may not all be used.
When the risotto is done, stir in the Morlacco and grana cheeses and remaining butter, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour into a soup tureen and serve, garnish with the reserved pear cubes.