Buon anno! I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and New Years. It was lovely being home for Christmas this year after traveling overseas the last two years. Although being in Italy for Christmas and New Years is at the top of my “favorites” list, I did miss putting up our Christmas tree, baking cookies, and sending out Christmas cards. We will no doubt go to Italy for the holidays again, but it was nice to take a break and stay home this year. Like the past few years, I am taking January “off” from non-essential commitments and focusing on some much needed rest and self-care. It has been one of the healthiest habits I have created for myself. I am also focusing on getting organized for blogging in the new year. Last month, I bought the Nourished Planner and love it. I’ll be using it exclusively as an editorial calendar and to keep all blog related to-do lists in one tidy, portable place. 2019 is already shaping up to be a busy year, so staying organized will be paramount. I am not wasting any time to get new posts published. I want to do a better job with blogging more consistently in order to continue sharing authentic Italian recipes with you. To kick off the new year, I made braised lentils with sausage, a traditional dish Italians eat every New Year’s Day for good luck.
Like most major holidays, New Years in Italy is steeped in ritual and tradition. Italians take the adage “out with the old, in with the new” quite seriously (and literally) in order to invite good luck into the coming year. You can still find people who will throw old, useless possessions out of their homes’ windows, although the practice isn’t as commonplace as it used to be (thankfully). The crashing sound of objects landing on the street at midnight is accompanied by the popping of Prosecco corks and the burst of fireworks, which not only usher in celebration, but are sounds believed to scare away evil spirits that bring misfortune. Other New Years traditions include burning a Yule log on New Years Eve to ward off evil spirits, and wearing a new pair of red underwear for good luck in the coming year.
The largest traditions on New Years Eve however, center around food. A large dinner known as il cenone di capo d’anno (the New Years big dinner) is hosted in households and restaurants across Italy and consists of a rich, sumptuous menu. Throughout most of Italy, lentils are eaten for good luck, as their round shape resembling coins is symbolic of wealth. In the northern region of Piemonte, rice is also symbolic of money, and risotto in bianco (white risotto) is eaten for good fortune. Grapes and raisins are also eaten, which are symbolic of wisdom and frugal spending, respectively. New Years desserts made with honey have existed since ancient Roman times, and symbolize richness and abundance. I grew up eating cicerchiata, also known as struffoli—a ring of sweetened, fried dough balls held together with honey and decorated with nuts and sprinkles.
A traditional pork sausage called cotechino can almost always be found served atop a bed of flavorful, braised lentils. Cotechino originated in the city of Modena in the region of Emilia-Romagna. It is a fresh, richly seasoned sausage that bears the IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) designation, a guarantee of origin for foods produced in a specific geographical area. Cotechino can also be found in many other regions of Italy, including Lombardia, Trentino, and Veneto. It is slow-cooked in a pot of simmering water for several hours until it is succulent and tender, after which it is sliced into rounds, another symbolic shape representing coins. The texture of cotechino borders on the creamy due to its high fat content and it is utterly delicious paired with braised lentils as well as mashed potatoes. I have never been able to find cotechino here in Houston but I was not about to let that stop me from sharing this recipe with you. I used pork sausage links, and cooked them identically to cotechino but for less time. It may not be 100% authentic, but it was still delicious.
After studying four different recipes for this dish, I ultimately decided to follow Ada Boni’s recipe from her cookbook, Il Talismano della Felicità because I found it to be the most traditional and closest to what I remember eating when I was young. I modified her recipe only slightly by adding carrot to the soffritto, and substituting the pork fat (which I didn’t have) with olive oil. Ada’s recipe doesn’t technically braise the lentils; rather they get a head start by being boiled first, after which they are added to the braising pan with a few ladlefuls of the water in which the sausages are boiled, adding a savory, meaty flavor to the lentils and giving them a tender, creamy texture.
I have never been one to believe in superstitions, so I don’t really worry about whether eating braised lentils with sausage will bring me luck in the new year. Rather, I have always loved the comforting and familiar tradition of making and eating the same foods for major holidays. And if eating braised lentils and sausage happens to bring me luck in the new year, all the better!
Braised Lentils with Sausage
Adapted from Il Talismano della Felicità by Ada Boni
1 pound (454 grams) brown lentils
3 stalks celery, washed, trimmed, and peeled
2 large carrots, washed, trimmed, and peeled
1 small onion, peeled and halved
1 pound 3 ounces (538 grams) mild Italian sausage links
⅓ cup olive oil, plus more if necessary
3 ½ teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
Place the lentils in a fine mesh colander and pick through them to remove any errant debris. Rinse the lentils under cold running water and transfer to a medium stock pot. Add in half of the onion and 1 celery stalk, left whole. Cover the lentils with an ample amount of cold water. Bring the lentils and vegetables to a gentle boil over medium heat, and cook them for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. At the end of cooking, add in the salt and stir well to combine. Taste the lentils for doneness–they should be tender. If they are still firm, cook them a little longer. Once the lentils are cooked, drain them through a fine mesh colander and discard the onion half and celery stalk. Transfer the lentils to a bowl and set aside.
Place the sausage links in a medium stock pot and cover them with cold water. Bring the water to a gentle boil over medium heat, and boil the sausages until they are cooked through completely, about 30 minutes. As the sausage links cook, skim any foam/scum that rises to the surface of the water and discard it. Remove the cooked sausage links to a plate and set them aside. Reserve sausage cooking liquid.
Chop the remaining celery stalks, carrots, and the remaining half an onion into small dice. Heat a large straight-sided skillet or braising pan over medium heat and add in the olive oil. Add in the chopped vegetables and sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of salt. Stir to coat the vegetables in the olive oil and sauté them until they are softened (but not browned), about 10 minutes. Add the sausage links to the pan with the vegetables and brown them lightly on all sides. Drizzle in more olive oil (in small amounts) if there isn’t enough to help the sausages brown. Remove the browned sausage links to a cutting board and tent with a piece of foil to keep them warm.
With the heat still on medium, add the drained, cooked lentils to the pan with the sautéed vegetables and toss to combine. Add in 2-3 small ladlefuls of the sausage cooking water to the lentils and vegetables, and cook at a gentle simmer until all the water has evaporated, about 10 minutes.
Transfer the lentils to a platter. Slice the sausage links and arrange them shingle-style over the lentils. Serve immediately.