If you want color and flavor in your winter garden, forget about ornamental (which means inedible) kale and its ilk. Go for the radicchio.
It's hard to beat. Radicchio has a deep pomegranate-red tone with attractive white veining. It's much more tender and versatile in the kitchen than the red cabbage it resembles. Radicchio's slightly bitter flavor enhances both raw and cooked dishes, and is a favorite in Italian cooking.
The Chiaggia variety resembles a smaller version of red cabbage. Treviso types grow more upright than round and come in additional colors, such as green, magenta and white. The Indigo variety is maroon and green, and is bolt resistant, so it can even be sown in late spring for a summer crop.
Sow Chiaggia or Treviso radicchio seeds indoors now to produce seedlings to transplant outdoors. Use three seeds in a 3-inch starter pot filled with loose, soilless mix. Mist the tops lightly with water and place the pots away from direct light until seedlings appear. Then move the pots to a sunny window and keep them moist but not soggy.
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The seedlings will be ready to plant outdoors when they're about 2 inches tall, which is as little as three weeks after germination.
Starter plants may be available at local garden centers.
Full sun or part shade is best for radicchio, either in containers or the yard. The seedlings and starter plants will handle colder temperatures outdoors just fine and don't need protection from light frosts. Leave about 8 inches between plants. For container gardening, use pots that are 1 gallon or larger.
You also can sow seeds directly outdoors, but wait a few weeks for soil temperatures to warm up to at least 60 degrees for better germination.
Provide an inch of water weekly until heads begin to form, then increase watering to twice a week.
Small heads will form on Chiaggia varieties in six weeks. Harvest Treviso heads when they are 6 to 8 inches high.
In most Southern climates, radicchio is considered a perennial. By cutting the heads rather than pulling up the plants, it's possible that new heads will form when the weather cools down in the fall.
Cutting some outer leaves for salads is fine, but let the centers of the plants grow. When heads are 4 to 5 inches in diameter, you can cut them, but leave the roots and outer leaves for a second crop. Allow the elongated varieties to get at least 6 inches tall before harvesting the heads.
Radicchio can be grilled or roasted, and cooking mellows and sweetens the flavor. Many recipes treat it like a salad green - visually and flavor-wise, it livens up winter offerings.
As with other purple or red-purple fruits and vegetables, it contains antioxidants.
Radicchio is an Italian variety of chicory, although it looks very different from its lacy-leaved cousin. Look for heads that are firm with no brown areas on the leaves. If you purchase it at a supermarket, try to find heads that haven't been doused with the ubiquitous produce section misters, which can make the outer leaves soggy.
To store, keep heads whole in a tightly sealed plastic bag for up to a week. Don't wash the leaves before you are ready to use them, and don't let water get into the storage bag.
The pop of color and flavor that radicchio offers is perfect in this hearty winter salad that also includes an old-but-new-again grain, farro. This grain from the wheat family has a delightful chewy texture and nutty flavor.
Reach Carol Stein and Debbie Moose at email@example.com.