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updated: 7/27/2011 7:45 AM

Grilled greens rich with flavor

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  • Courtesy of Royal Rose Radicchio

    Courtesy of Royal Rose Radicchio

By Deborah Pankey

Burgers are a natural fit for the grill. A flame-licked patty with a charred crust hiding a juicy inside belongs in a museum and comes up as the most-popular grilled food in multiple surveys.

Vegetables have been gaining ground as weekend warriors discover the bold flavors tomatoes, mushrooms and zucchini develop after a little time on the grates.

Yet most wouldn't think of throwing lettuce on the grill next to asparagus spears and eggplant planks. But, yes, even lettuces contain natural sugars that caramelize, giving them deeper flavors after a little time over an open fire.

Shake from your mind any images of single leaves of iceberg drying and curling in the heat. When it comes to grilling greens, you go at it by the head.

The key is to closely trim the stem end of the head, be it romaine, endive or radicchio, to get rid of the woody part while leaving the leaves attached.

"Split the head in half through the core, leaving it intact," says chef Thomas Leavitt of White Oak Personal Chef Services in Arlington Heights.

Before radicchio hits his grill, Leavitt gives it a liberal slather of olive oil and some grinds of salt and pepper.

Chef William McIlroy at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines uses grilled romaine in a cold salad at Canopy Buffet. Instead of straight oil, he brushes the cut-side of the heads with Caesar-style dressing before it goes on the grill. (Might I suggest homemade grilled croutons to top his salad?)

The oil, dressing or other marinade helps ensure that the tender leaves don't stick to the grill, but it's also a good idea to make sure the grates are clean and rubbed with cooking oil (before lighting!) before the lettuce goes on.

Some recipes call for cooking just long enough to impart gorgeous grill lines on the cut side; others recommend cooking on both sides until the whole head is tender, in which case the feathery tips might need to be covered with foil to prevent burning.

The folks at the California-based Royal Rose Radicchio website have these simple suggestions for incorporating grilled radicchio (whether the round chioggia variety or the elongated treviso type) into meals. These suggestions and the included recipes can work with bok choy, endive and other varieties with tight heads:

• Serve with a hot bacon vinaigrette. • Baste lettuces with a mixture of orange juice, extra-virgin olive oil, orange zest and pepper. Serve with fresh orange wedges. • Grill radicchio wedges wrapped in prosciutto. • Cook white beans with garlic and sage; drain and cool. Serve grilled radicchio topped with the white beans.