Last week here at La Domestique, I shared images of produce from the final farmers market of the regular season in Boulder, Colorado in a post titled, The Last Phase is the Most Glorious. Every season, a trip to the market brings the usual staples (carrots, onions, celery, potatoes), seasonal highlights (peaches, corn, pumpkins), and the occasional wildcard vegetable (an unfamiliar green, exotic fruit, or monstrous squash). Scanning the farm stands at the last market of 2012, my eyes smiled at old friends, both human and vegetable, until I came across something I had never seen at the market before – a massive head of ragged leaves, dark green surrounding a tender heart of purple with white veins. As Chef Eric Skokan of the Black Cat farm and restaurant handed me a piece to taste, I looked at him, perplexed, “What IS this?” Chewing on the sturdy, bitter leaf, my brain knew it was the wild, tannic flavor of a chicory, but my eyes weren’t sure. It was a radicchio – but not just any variety of radicchio, a huge leafy head of Radicchio Palla Rossa.
You’re probably familiar with Radicchio Chioggia, the small burgundy variety with white veins composed tightly in cabbage-shaped head. Well, the giant loose-leafed variety is a close relative. To obtain the stark contrast of white on red, without any presence of green, radicchio is harvested and then “forced” – stored in the dark to keep its colors pure and impair the production of chlorophyl, which gives vegetables their green pigmentation. I had never seen a non-forced variety, which I learned is sown late in the year for a fall or winter harvest. Radicchio hails from Italy, where bitter greens are embraced and served raw in salads, braised, tossed with pasta or risotto, rolled into an omelet, baked, broiled and even fried. Eric reminded me of a cheesy winter tart he used to serve at the Black Cat restaurant (where I once worked), and I stuffed the colassal head of radicchio into my bag.
Cooking with an unfamiliar vegetable is an adventure. I start with an idea, and the radicchio had me thinking “creamy, cheesy tart with bitter greens.” Next, I look to my cookbook collection for guidance on technique. Leafing through Nigel Slater’s book, Tender, I came across a recipe for Chard Gratin. Chard has a similar texture to Radicchio Palla Rossa, and I noted that Nigel blanched the chard in boiling water before baking it in cream with a dash of mustard and a “good handful” of Parmesan. I found a technique for dealing with the radicchio, now I needed a savory tart recipe. I usually go to Martha Stewart for a reliable pastry, but decided to go with a savory tart base recipe from Patricia Michelson’s book, Cheese: Exploring Taste and Tradition. I followed her instructions for flaky pastry, mixing cold butter into flour with a lightly beaten egg and a splash of water. The pastry is then rolled out into a tart pan and blind baked before the filling is added. I blanched the greens (sliced into bite-sized pieces) in boiling water, then shocked them in an ice bath to preserve their color. After squeezing all the water I could out of the radicchio, into the pre-baked tart shell it went. A handful of Gruyère cheese and a few pinches of freshly ground nutmeg were my additions to Patricia’s simple Savory Custard Filling (heavy cream, eggs, salt and pepper). I chose Gruyère for its nutty flavor and luscious melting quality that’s so perfectly rich in the colder months. After 20 minutes in a 400 degrees Fahrenheit oven the custard was set, the cheese bubbling, and the pastry crust golden and flakey.
Next time around I might not blanch the greens, as it was difficult to squeeze out all the water and the finished tart was a bit wet. I’m thinking the greens aren’t so tough that they need to be pre-cooked, but if they are, I might try sautéing the radicchio in a splash of olive oil. Overall, the tart was a success, with its pleasantly bitter greens tamed by a rich and creamy custard. A simple flaky pastry is just fine, but I’ve got dreams of a nutty crust for the next version, perhaps walnuts. That’s the beauty of discovering a new vegetable, the journey leads to creative ideas and new flavor combinations. Next time you come across an unfamiliar vegetable, bring it home. With a bit of inspiration and the guidance of your cookbook collection, you’ll figure out what to do.
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