If you only ever shopped at a British supermarket, you would think that radicchio was simply something invented by marketing men to add an annoying little touch of colour to plastic salad bags. You'd never guess you could actually cook with this exotic red chicory, never dream that there are markets in the world where you can purchase it loose by the kilo, not imprisoned in a ball of cling film.
Radicchio is one of those vegetables, like fennel or celery, that take on a completely different character when cooked. When raw, it is best, as Marcella Hazan says, finely shredded against the grain of the leaves, which somehow makes it taste fresher and less intrusive. But if you can make the imaginative leap, there are all kinds of lovely ways to cook it. It is traditional in parts of Italy to grill it whole, but actually this isn't the best way for novices to eat it, because the bitterness becomes compounded. It's nicer when dealt with more gently - simmered in risotti or thick soups, as the River Cafe does, or simply baked or braised. It can be split down the middle, combined half-and-half with the milder white chicory, doused in olive oil and baked in a hot oven for 25 minutes, turning now and again. Cooked like this, it's good with sausages.
What we generally call radicchio, those cabbage-shaped spheres of crinkly maroon, is really rosso di Verona, which is mainly grown in the Veneto region, but also increasingly in California, Mexico and even New Jersey, to feed the appetite of upmarket American restaurants. The red colour is achieved by covering the leaves while they are growing. Left to their own devices, the leaves would be green and even more bitter. Rated superior in Italy is radicchio rosso di Treviso, which has longer, milder leaves, but the season for it, which begins around Christmas, is now over. Even more highly prized is radicchio tardivo di Treviso, whose pointed red stalks are available only in January.
But the common rosso di Verona is available year-round and is fine for cooking, so long as you buy it fresh and discard any browning leaves. The French, who have come to radicchio later than the Italians, are not so particular about the different varieties.
Guy Martin, a three-Michelin-starred chef, has just brought out a book dedicated - unusually for a Frenchman - entirely to vegetables. He gives a recipe for ordinary radicchio braised in cream, which is an excellent introduction if you've only ever sampled the vegetable in those multicoloured salad packs.
Radicchio with cream
(Adapted from Vegetables by Guy Martin, published by Ici La Press, available via mail order from icilapress.com - http://www.icilapress.com - or amazon.com. I reduced the amount of cream, which is still fulsome.)
Ingredients: You need eight heads of radicchio, 400ml double cream, salt, pepper.
Carefully trim off the base of each radicchio, making sure the leaves stay attached to each other.
Boil a large pan of salted water and cook the radicchio for three minutes, before plunging into cold water and draining. Gently squeeze the heads to get the water out. Arrange them next to each other in a wide shallow pan (a paella pan would be perfect).
Pour the cream over, season, and bring to the boil before reducing the heat and simmering for about 20-30 minutes, turning two or three times, or until the cream is almost entirely reduced. If the cream seems as if it is going to burn before the radicchio is cooked to your satisfaction, add a splash of water.
Guy Martin says this serves four, but I think that, with some grilled fish or roast chicken and boiled potatoes, it would serve nearer six.