If you’re looking for something new and wonderful to grow next year, put radicchio on your planting list. This delicious chicory cousin has been grown in Northern Italy for thousands of years, but it’s a latecomer to most modern vegetable gardens. Known for its bright colours, crisp texture and mild bitter bite, growing radicchio is as easy as growing lettuce, or possibly easier because it is of little interest to slugs, aphids, and other common lettuce pests.
Radicchio is also a nutritional powerhouse, delivering hefty amounts of Vitamin K, which enhances brain and heart health. The antioxidant-rich leaves also contain inulin, a type of fiber that benefits the digestive system while making you feel fuller and more satisfied.
I find radicchio’s complex flavour to be borderline addictive, and enjoy growing radicchio twice a year, in spring and in autumn. A few varieties, notably speckled ‘Castelfranco’, elongated ‘Treviso’ types, and round, red ‘Chioggia’ strains have earned many devoted fans. In the US, Uprising Seeds now offer 15 radicchio varieties, and is working with Italian breeders to expand their list.
Nutlike, triangular radicchio seeds are fast germinators that are up and growing within a week of sowing. In both spring and summer, I start the seeds indoors under lights in partitioned containers, then set the little plants out when the weather is right and they have three nice leaves. Radicchio needs fertile, well-drained soil in a sunny site. To encourage fast growth, I dig in a cushy blanket of rich compost when preparing the bed.
Except for regular watering, radicchio needs no special care. Basal leaves spread out over the soil, which limits competition from weeds, and the plants are non-preferred by many pests. There are no solid results yet, but chicory extracts are being studied as natural insecticides of the future.
With the help of lengthening days, spring radicchio forms crisp inner leaves about 60 days after planting. If you cut the head high, leaving a sizeable stump, the plants will often produce a second flush of leaves.
Spring radicchio is great, but autumn-grown plants are even better. Seedlings set out in August are ready to harvest in October and will wait patiently to be picked until just before the first hard freeze.
Or you can leave some in the garden. Radicchio is a resilient perennial in many climates, and plants that survive winter will promptly grow a fast flush of leaves in spring, followed by beautiful blue flowers. Digging and forcing a radicchio plant can also be a fun winter project. Simply dig up a dormant plant with its roots intact, suspend it in a pail of water, and keep it in a basement or other cool spot until leaves appear.
Cooking With Radicchio
As a garden cook, I regard each radicchio plant as two vegetables. As I clean and groom the head, I set aside the mild inner leaves for salads, and use the larger leaves as cooked greens, or for larbs or other lettuce-wrap creations. Radicchio leaves that have been cleaned, patted dry and placed in plastic bags will keep in the refrigerator for several days. It is worth noting here that I have never found an unwanted creature in a radicchio heart.
The most historic radicchio recipe is to split the heads and grill them. Serve with good olive oil and gorgonzola cheese. Cooking tames any excess bitterness in the leaves, while imparting a nutty richness. Just a few minutes of grilling, braising or broiling will do the job.
In salads, radicchio pairs brilliantly with fruits, especially grapes or oranges. Indeed, there are so many great plays on radicchio salad that you will run out of radicchio before your run out of radicchio recipes. Then it will be time to plant more.