Red radicchio in risotto with pancetta and red wine

Radicchio (pronounced rah-dee-kee-oh) – from the chicory family – is a leafy vegetable that is native to the Veneto/Trentino regions in the northeast of Italy. In the 1970s you could not find seeds to grow it in Melbourne. When my sister got married and my nonna Carolina came here for the wedding, she smuggled a whole lot of seeds for green radicchio in her suitcase. She was stopped by Customs at Melbourne airport – she was in her late seventies and did not speak a word of English and was brilliant at feigning surprise – but the whole lot was confiscated anyway, much to my father’s dismay.

You can buy the seeds now from stockists such as Cardamone in Fairfield and buy some varieties fresh at the market. The red variety, which is what I am writing about today, is used most frequently in cooking – it is slightly bitter and can be spicy. The types that are most commonly available in Australia are radicchio rosso di Chioggia (round red leaves, about 10cm diameter), radicchio rosso di Verona (elongated round leaves, the outer ones are green/red striped) and radicchio rosso di Treviso (the elongated type). The words Treviso, Verona and Chioggia refer to places in Veneto where the vegetable is grown and they are protected names.

Radicchio rosso di Treviso ready to eat

Radicchio (radicio in our dialect) rosso is great in cooking. It is a winter vegetable so its bitter taste matches beautifully with hearty meals. The redder the leaves, the greater the bitterness. If you don’t like the bitterness, you can soak the leaves in water for a period of time (10 minutes to an hour) to make it sweeter. I use either the Chioggia (pronounced key-oh-jar) or Treviso varieties to make my red risotto. The Chiogga type has more bitterness so it should be soaked before using for cooking. If you use the Treviso variety, you will need to remove most of the white spine of each leaf.

Radicchio rosso di Chioggia

Risotto is the perfect dish to complement red radicchio. Regular readers of this blog will know that risotto is my fast food. Read here for tips on making the perfect risotto. This recipe ticks all the boxes – bitter, sour, salty and sweet plus the rice is cooked in an equal proportion of stock to red wine. Brown sugar is used to counteract any residual bitterness, creamy butter and parmiggiano are stirred through and aged balsamic is drizzled on top. Aged balsamic is quite expensive – if you don’t have any, don’t use the cheap variety – just omit this step. Enjoy this meal shared with your loved ones and a glass of peppery Shiraz on a cold winter evening.

Red risotto
Serves 4
50g pancetta, diced (2mm)
1 red onion, diced
1 red radicchio, thinly sliced (and soaked in water if bitter, then drained)
1/2 tablespoon brown sugar
Olive oil
1/2 glass full bodied red wine (to cook radicchio)
2 cups Carnaroli rice
2 cups chicken stock (preferably home made)
2 cups full bodied red wine
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
75g unsalted butter
A bit of extra red wine to stir in at the end of cooking
75g grated parmiggiano
Aged balsamic vinegar for drizzling over prepared risotto

Cook the pancetta for 15 minutes on low heat until the fat renders and the pancetta starts to crisp in a non-stick pan. Remove the pancetta from the pan and set aside. Add some olive oil to the fat in the pan and add the onion and radicchio. Simmer for about 20 minutes, adding 1/2 glass of wine when it starts drying out. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Add the cooked pancetta, the red wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm on low heat until needed.

Red risotto drizzled with aged Balsamic vinegar

In the meantime, heat the chicken stock and wine in a small saucepan. Heat the rice in your risotto saucepan (a large non-stick one works well). When the rice warms up add the warmed stock/wine – the rice and the liquid should be approximately the same temperature. Simmer on low heat with the lid on for 12 minutes.

After 12 minutes increase the heat of the saucepan with the rice, remove the lid and add the radicchio mixture. Stir well. Add some boiling water as needed and stir every now and until the rice is cooked (about another 8 – 10 minutes). Adjust for salt. Stir in the butter. When the butter has melted, add another slug of red wine. Remove from the heat after a minute. Stir in the parmiggiano, put on the lid and let it rest for a few minutes.

Serve on white plates, drizzled with some aged balsamic.

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