by Maribeth Evezich, MS, RD, CDN
With tightly bound, magenta leaves, radicchio is a striking vegetable. But, at the market, it often receives an admiring gaze, then is passed over for the more familiar, less bitter and less intimidating bins of greens. While radicchio (pronounced similar to Pinocchio), looks like a small cabbage, it is actually a member of the chicory family, cousins of lettuces and dandelions. Also known as Italian or Red Chicory, radicchio is very versatile to use, nutritious and is as simple to prepare as your usual green suspects. Radicchio is nutritionally rich, but has several distinguishing health benefits, which set it apart from typical salad greens. Check out this impressive red-head!
Digestive Health: Chicories, like radicchio, contain inulin, a non-digestible carbohydrate . Through fermentation, inulin acts as a prebiotic, stimulating the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria in the intestine. Inulin also helps regulate blood sugar levels . In addition, the bitter quality ofradicchio increases bile salts, which can improve digestion.
Bone and Neurological Health: Radicchio is uniquely rich in vitamin K, with 100 grams providing 212% of daily recommended values. Vitamin K promotes the formation and strengthening of bone. Further, research shows adequate dietary vitamin K may limit naturally occurring neuron damage in the brain. As such, vitamin K has an established role in the treatment of Alzheimer’s .
Visual Health: Radicchio’s vibrant red color is an eye-pleaser, in more ways than one. The brightly colored leaves are an excellent source of phenolic flavonoid antioxidants, such as zeaxanthin and lutein. These compounds protect eyes from age-related macular disease (ARMD) by filtering harmful ultra-violet rays . Sunscreen for your eyes!
When selecting radicchio, look for compact, bright-colored heads with prominent ribs, free of bruises and brown or withered leaves. The smaller, younger heads will be less bitter. Store the heads refrigerated, but eat as quickly as possible as they will become more bitter with time. To reduce the bitterness, soak the leaves or quarters in cold water for 10 to 30 minutes.
Substitute radicchio in recipes calling for chicory or endive. Using radicchio raw, tear or chop the leaves into small pieces, and combine it with other salad greens for a flavor, color and texture accent. The individual leaves can also be used as elegant and low-carb serving cups or wrappers for appetizers. Cored, but not quartered, the sturdy leaves are excellent grilled or roasted. Radicchiopairs especially well with balsamic vinegar. Try tossing the soaked and dried leaves with a balsamic vinaigrette, with an optional topping of shaved parmesan. Balsamic vinegar also combines well with grilled or roasted radicchio.
1. The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia – Comprehensive Resource for Healthy Eating, by Rebecca Wood
3. USDA National Nutrient database
4. Nutrition & You. nutritionandyou.com – Radicchio