Radicchio (Cichorium intybus) is a perennial plant in the chicory genus that falls within the Asteraceae/Compositae (aster) family that includes the daisy and dandelion, amongst other composite flowers. This cultivated version of chicory, sometimes called red or Italian chicory, is a beautiful burgundy color leafed vegetable with white veins. Hailing from Italy, radicchio comes in several varieties that are usually named for the area of Italy they originated from.
Benefits of Radicchio
While more intentional cultivation began in the 15th century, radicchio has been used as far back as ancient Roman times. It was administered medicinally to treat problems such as insomnia or to be used for blood purification. The idea of treating insomnia comes from the fact that radicchio contains lactucopicrin (intybin), a sesquiterpene lactone (which is found in most of the Asteraceae family). This compound is what gives radicchio its bitter taste but also acts as sedative and an analgesic. Plus, it has been used as an anti-malarial agent and is known to reduce hunger pains. As for its blood purifying capabilities, this may also be due to the sesquiterpene lactones radicchio possess, because they also reduce inflammation, suppress tumors, and promote microbial and parasite resistance.
Radicchio also provides many phytonutrients/antioxidants such as lycopene, zeaxanthin, lutein, ellagic acid, and quercetin, which improve overall health, reduce inflammation, and reduce the risks of developing chronic diseases and certain cancers. Radicchio also has inulin; a soluble dietary plant fiber and oligosaccharide that helps regulate blood glucose and promote a healthy gut biome.
For a 1 cup (40 grams) serving radicchio provides 9 calories, no fat, 1 gram of protein, and 2 grams of carbohydrates. This leafy vegetable is an excellent source of vitamins C, E (Alpha Tocopherol), K-1, B-9 (folate), and copper, manganese, and potassium. It is also a good source of vitamins B-5 (pantothenic acid), B-6, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc.
With all the health benefits this lovely red chicory offers, it’s a wonderful, and beautiful, addition to your garden. Radicchio can be grown in both spring and fall; however fall crops result in higher quality produce and radicchio isn’t very tolerant of long days or hot summer temperatures. Both will cause the bitterness of radicchio to intensify, and may also increase its chances of bolting and burning. So, while a spring crop is doable, just know that radicchio has a long growing season of up to 90 days and will be green in the hotter part of summer, turning red in the coolness of fall.
When planting radicchio, sow in full sun (although it is partial shade tolerant) in soil that has pH around 6, with low levels of nitrogen. Plant seeds about ¼ inch deep in rows that are spaced at least 2’ apart. Thinning can be done once the plants emerge so that plants are 6” apart. It’s best to water plants thoroughly once a week, ensuring that deep watering is conducted 1-2 weeks prior to maturity. Once your radicchio has matured and you’re ready to harvest, you can pick the entire head or just a few leaves at a time.
As the plants grow keep an eye out for aphids that can damage plants. Inviting ladybugs into your garden can help keep aphid populations at bay. If you find you can’t keep aphids from taking over your garden, try mixing 5 drops of the essential oils thyme, peppermint, clove, and rosemary and adding them to a spray bottle filled with water and spray your radicchio. Using hot pepper or capsaicin can also work, just do not inhale or get into your eyes!
Cooking with Radicchio
While radicchio looks like a lettuce or cabbage, as mentioned before, it’s actually chicory. However, this doesn’t keep it from being used as a lettuce or cabbage. In fact many recipes for salads include radicchio. So if you want to try it, you can add a little radicchio to your next salad. However, cooking radicchio will mellow out its bitterness and can easily be incorporated into many dishes including this recipe here.
Radicchio and Mushroom Chicken
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
2 medium shallots, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon crushed red-pepper flakes
16 oz. assorted mushrooms – pick your favorites, just make sure they’re stemmed and coarsely chopped
¼ cup white wine
2 Tablespoon fresh thyme
3 Tablespoons fresh parsley
½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Juice of 1 lemon
1 head of radicchio, sliced crosswise into thin strips
6 oz. of crumbled feta, gorgonzola, or blue cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Place enough oil in pan to coat
Heat over medium heat
Salt and pepper chicken breasts
Add chicken to pan
Cook chicken until juices run clear and a thermometer inserted into chicken reads 165° F
Remove chicken from pan and keep warm
Add shallots, mushrooms, and red-pepper flakes to pan
Cook until shallots and mushrooms have softened (slowly add more oil to pan if needed to prevent sticking or burning)
Cook until ¾ reduced
Add thyme, parsley, lemon zest and juice, and radicchio to pan
Toss until radicchio has wilted
Remove from heat
Add cheese and salt and pepper to taste and toss
Put radicchio mushroom mix on serving plates and top with chicken breasts
Serve and enjoy!
Radicchio is still popular and being cultivated in Italy today, as well as various other countries. It is sought after for its unique bitter taste and beautiful red hue. While this leafy vegetable may take a little more care in the summer months, it is well worth growing. It will add flare and distinctiveness to your garden, as well as your diet. With all the health benefits radicchio offers, it is a must for the garden and your culinary creations. So try your hand at this charming variety of chicory and enjoy the color, taste, and health it offers you!
Chadwick, M., et al. June 19, 2013. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. Sesquiterpenoids Lactones: Benefits to Plants and People. V: 14(6). Pages: 12780-12805. doi: 10.3390/ijms140612780. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3709812/
Kovatch, J. March 1, 2003. Master Gardeners Journal. Milwaukee County University of Wisconsin-Extension. http://ozaukeemastergardeners.org/5-Fact%20Sheets/Vegetables/Radicchio.pdf
Wikipedia.org. March 18, 2017. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Radicchio. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radicchio