Sunday, July 6, 2014

Radicchio is the Thing with Feathers

As seen in slightly different form on, part of the New Riot Media Group.  

A  few years ago, I put together a Valentine’s Day menu which included such treats as “The Broken Hearted Caesar” (hard-bias cut romaine, traditional Caesar accouterments, fried oysters), the “Soft Underbelly of Love” (pork belly, plate action, tangy driz), and “Because it is Bitter and Because it is my Heart” (grilled radicchio, shard of pistachio-plum brittle thrust into it, balsamic redux). This particular menu didn’t sell very well: the servers, save one or two, didn’t understand the references – either what they were or why they were there – and the diners really just wanted a seared salmon or a steak.  Maybe a duck breast, for the daring few. They weren’t there for the Chef’s not-altogether-positive ruminations on love, expressed through snarky menu names; it was Valentine’s Day, for crying out loud.

I was frustrated by the menu’s overall sales, but I felt a little bit sad the radicchio had had so few takers. Not only did the dish’s name inspire in me an upwelling of hilarity, a variety of glee I usually feel only when told jokes about what numbers say or do to each other, but “Because it is Bitter and Because it is my Heart” was understated in plating, well-rounded in flavor, gorgeous and delicious. And no one wanted to try it.

But I understand why not. 

Bitter is the last flavor we learn to like. A child will look at you with horror – real horror, like, Why are you trying to kill me? horror – if you present her with a frisee salad, or a dish of sautéed rapini. There is a basis for such terror – nature often uses bitterness to express toxicity, as any bird who has gone for a certain kind of caterpillar will tell you (if it weren’t dead). Our tongue’s taste buds demonstrate a certain amount of variation in flavor receptivity; they are not laid out quite as simply as sweet at the front, salty and sour on the sides, umami everywhere (maybe add pungency and astringency to the overall gestalt of flavors), and bitter at the back. But, that bitterness is tasted most strongly at the back of the tongue does seems like nature’s last chance to exit the highway, a last chance to spit out willow bark and think about its flavor later, like when you’re inventing aspirin.

Early experiences with bitterness include poking at cafeteria grapefruits, spitting out a mouthful of gin and tonic, and being dumped in my senior year via yearbook inscription. It is in my nature, however, to find balance, and now I taste the sweet in the ruby red, raise toasts with gins and tonics, and will maybe go on a date again someday… avoiding the bitter does not make sweet sweeter. Quite the opposite. Cue the beginning of my exploration of bitterness as a flavor, in food and life. Let the broadening of an emotional and culinary palate begin!

Top of the list of things to try was radicchio. With its striking combination of white and burgundy, colors I wanted to eat, hang as curtains, or wear like a boyfriend’s letter jacket, this bitter “green” is an object of absolute beauty to me. A quartered head looks like the feathers of an exotic bird, an animal time forgot. A rough chop of radicchio provides color and flavor in salads and sautés, a backdrop against which other ingredients can pop and shine. When radicchio is lightly marinated in a vinegary solution and grilled, flavors of char, acid, and bitterness combine to create a taste sensation I associate with being the survivor of a shipwreck off the north coast of France in the early nineteenth century – brackish, alkaline, salty, and as sweet as finding a bed of rushes and reeds.

More recent experiences with bitterness include discovering the Pacific Northwest’s extremely hoppy IPAs, ordering bitter melon in Chinatown, and losing my job. There are many times of the year in Seattle when any kind of blow to self, any experience with bitterness, is compounded by a low sky and half-frozen rain rattling against single-paned windows. But this is not that time. While it may be a little while longer before I feel grateful for an unlooked-for major-life-change, right now I have sunny skies, a hot grill, a feathery heart of radicchio, and my friends, who are toasting the summer with Negronis. I have time to think hopefully upon what’s next.  Right now, I will savor the sweet.

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