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I've had a recipe turning around in my brain for several weeks. It all started when I was trying to think of a simple yet interesting recipe that used cherries, as part of our Easiest Ever series—seasonal recipes with no more than four main ingredients, not including pantry basics. What I ended up with was a red cherry and jicama salad with crushed nuts and basil.
But what I couldn't let go of was an alternate idea that couldn't have been more different. Instead of concentrating on freshness and juiciness and crispness, the other plan went in the opposite direction: wilted, aged, and cooked. Wait, wait! Don't leave just yet. I know those aren't all qualities that sound particularly appetizing, but they really can be, at least when used with intention.
When you want vibrancy, wilting is a bad thing, especially when we're talking about very delicate lettuces that go from snappy and crisp to limp, wet rags in a matter of minutes. But some leafy vegetables can handle being wilted. Sometimes, they even benefit from it. If you're having a hard time imagining this, just think of the perennially popular kale Caesar salad, which is only good once the kale softens enough. Or consider this Brussels sprout salad I developed a while ago, in which I wilt half of the shredded tough leaves from the sprouts using salt. The wilting is what makes these salads great.
Radicchio is another green (if I can call a red chicory a "green") that can stand up to a little bit of going limp. Given the season, instead of using a dressing or salt to soften my radicchio, I quarter it and toss it over a grill's highest heat, just long enough to brown and char it in spots. It's important to keep the core intact to hold the leaves together. What you'll notice is that the radicchio's outer leaves quickly drain of color, almost like a rose going dry before your eyes. It's kind of a sad sight, but like I said, it's on purpose, and it will all make sense in a second. The radicchio ends up more tender in spots, still bright and steamy within, with an even deeper, more bitter flavor.
This is where the cherries enter into it. In a small saucepan, I cook them down with sugar and some sherry vinegar until they're thickened and jammy, then spike that fruit compote with even more vinegar to fix the final taste. (Other vinegars, like white wine, red wine, Champagne, and cider, would work, each giving its own flavor to the sauce.) The vinegar is what adds that aged flavor I mentioned above. Maybe it didn't sound so appealing without any context, but wine, and the vinegar that's made from it, has precisely that—an aged flavor. Often, when you're deciding between adding lemon juice and vinegar to a sauce or dressing, it's this quality that is most important: Do you want a clean, fresh acidic flavor or a complex, aged one? It just depends on the dish and your preference. In this case, with the brooding, bitter grilled radicchio, I felt that that deeper, older, vinted flavor of vinegar was more appropriate.
This cherry sauce is more or less what the French call a gastrique. In its most classic form, a gastrique is a combination of caramelized sugar and vinegar, which can then be added to other sauces, such as fruit sauces, for sweet-sour effect. (One of the most famous examples is the sour orange sauce served as part of duck à l'orange.) But today, the term is used more flexibly to refer to a wider range of vinegar-based sweet-sour sauces, like mine here. In Italian, you'd call it an agrodolce. Or, you could just say it's a sweet-and-sour cherry sauce, if the Continental terms come across as overly haughty.
No matter what you call it, what's important is getting that balance of sweet and savory right, and it's hard to give a definitive recipe for that, since so much depends on the fruit you start with. My cherries, for example, were very plump and taut, but not the sweetest I'd ever tasted. You may have ones that are sweeter. Adding the vinegar is a matter of balancing that out, so how much you add will change based on the flavor of your fruit. My advice is to add the final amount in stages, tasting along the way and stopping when you reach a bracing level of sourness that really stands up to the sugar. (You may even need to reduce the sauce further if the vinegar thins it out too much.) Keep in mind that this sauce is for intensely bitter radicchio, so you want to go strong here. A cloying cherry sauce with too little acidity will do nothing to bring that bitterness into check. This dish really is all about balancing intense flavors.
With the radicchio grilled and the cherry sauce made, there's nothing more to do than plate it up. I love this part the most, because it's when each of the decisions leading up to it starts to make sense. The radicchio is charred and wilted, and drained of its original color. But then that cherry sauce goes on top, and those lifeless-looking leaves get spattered in a vivid blood-red color, bringing that life right back onto the plate. Then the flavors, like I said, come together. The radicchio, too bitter to enjoy on its own, makes sense with that sauce, which was itself skirting the edge of acceptable sweetness and sourness just moments before.
A drizzle of fresh olive oil and a few scattered mint leaves are all it takes to give the dish another dimension of fresh flavor and color. The only thing left to decide is what to serve this with. It's a bold side dish, so you're not going to want to pair it with fish, or even chicken. No, this is calling out for something equally bold, like a fatty aged T-bone steak, sizzling-hot off the grill. Sometimes fruits and vegetables need to go toe to toe with a true heavyweight.
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