When my half-Italian/Roman friend Robert said a few years ago that he had to be in Rome for New Year’s Eve to eat lentils and sausages, I have to confess I wasn’t terribly impressed. Lentils and sausages! I’d always celebrated the arrival of a new year with more sophisticated fare. But my knowledge and love of Italian food (and Italy!) has grown with the blog and now I know more about the traditional New Year’s Eve celebration of eating Cotechino e Lenticchie in Italy as the old year rolls over into the new.
The Italians are fond of traditions and apart from the lentils eating, they engage in throwing old pots, pans, clothes and even furniture out of the window on New Year’s Eve as a symbol of letting go of any past unhappiness and making room for a happier future. I can only imagine it causing a good deal of conflict if any unsuspecting passerby became the victim of a flying saucepan! Another tradition is to wear red underwear which is supposed to bring good luck. But we won’t go into details on that one and I’ll get back to the lentils! Lentils I thought I’d go with. Let’s have lentils, I decided. And homemade sausages. Traditionally the Italians use cotechino which is made from ground shoulder of pork and parts of the pig’s guts (it’s sounding a bit haggis here! All those innards). Other seasonings are added and the sausage is poached. Well, much as I like to be authentic where I can, I wasn’t about to try to make a cotechino and didn’t know where to source one nearby. So I made sausages my own way. And so this is an interpretation of an Italian New Year’s Eve meal rather than making any claims to be the real thing.
I don’t eat sausages a lot but put a recipe together one summer, soon after returning from Kardamyli in Greece, which was inspired by a pork dish I had there. I spiced them up with orange and some of the wonderful Greek herbs – including lots of oregano – that I’d bought from Yiannis in his wonderful shop and brought home. Although they were a family success I never got round to putting the recipe on the blog but I decided to make them again to go with my lentils. Thus we were bringing a little of Greece to the Italian meal … but the Greeks once ruled southern Italy so let’s not get too hung up about it. I remember seeing the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras’s school’s ruins in Basilicata three years ago when visiting that area with my daughter. It was so quiet that we were the only two people there and I felt unexpectedly moved to be wandering quietly around such a historic place and thinking of Pythagoras as a real person and linking him to his theorem learned way back in my school days.
The eating of lentils and sausages at New Year in Italy is supposed to bring good luck. The tradition goes back to the 16th century when the citizens of Modena (of the famous vinegar) in Emilia-Romana were besieged and made cotechino to make use of all parts of the pig so that their resources lasted longer and nothing was wasted. Lentils symbolise money and thus prosperity for the coming year.
For cooking the lentils I remembered a great recipe in one of my Jamie Oliver cookbooks but I also consulted Antonio Carluccio whose books I find invaluable for Italian cooking, especially his Italia which looks at the specialities and traditions of each region. In the end, I combined a mix of ideas but it all turned out well.
I made the sausages early in the day so that they could chill in the fridge and be less likely to fall apart when cooked. I bought 500g organic pork mince (8% fat) and mixed this with 50g fresh breadcrumbs, 1 clove garlic crushed with 1 teaspoon salt, the zest of 1 orange, the juice of 1/2 orange, 1 teaspoon dried oregano and some freshly ground black pepper.
I mixed it all together well with my hands. Don’t be tempted to put it in a food processor as it will just turn to a paste and not be the right consistency at all. I actually weighed them – I don’t usually go that far with my fairly laid-back cooking but it seemed a good idea and I made 6 x (almost) 100g sausages. I wasn’t going to use them all but froze the extras.
The lentils I made much closer to the time of eating so they didn’t have to be reheated. I’m not a fan of microwaves and don’t own one but you could reheat in one or very gently with a little more liquid in the pan if you wanted to prepare these in advance. For 2 people measure 200g Puy lentils into a pan and cover with stock or water. Add 1 clove of garlic whole and 1 bay leaf.
Bring to a boil and simmer gently for 15 minutes with the lid on. Then add 100g cherry tomatoes cut in half and a small bunch of flat leaf parsley, very roughly chopped.
Simmer for a few more minutes until the lentils are tender and stir the tomatoes and parsley in well. Season with salt and pepper, a good squeeze of tomato puree and a generous glug of extra virgin olive oil.
About halfway through cooking the lentils start grilling your sausages so everything is ready at the same time. Pile some of the lentils onto a plate and then slice the sausages at an angle and separate slightly before laying across the lentils.
Of course, being New Year’s Eve, the meal had to begin with some fizz so I opened some prosecco.
With the meal I kept the Italian theme with a bottle of Barbera d’Asti, a fruity red wine from Piedmont. Which I note, rather conveniently, as I now look at the bottle writing this, is supposed to go well with ‘spicy Italian sausages’!
It was a different kind of New Year’s Eve meal for me. Normally I’d indulge in things like smoked salmon, oysters, some fine beef maybe, champagne rather than prosecco – lots of expensive edible treats. But I had great fun making the lentils and sausages and finding out more about Italian traditions … and really, this may have been a rather frugal way to bring in the new year, but it was a very delicious one!! Happy new year everyone!