An Italian New Year’s Eve celebration is not complete without – lentils? These beans, largely considered to be “peasant food” in Italy, hardly seem like they deserve a place at a holiday table, but Italians believe if eaten on New Year’s Eve, it will usher in buona fortuna (good luck) in the year ahead. The small, round shape of a lentil is said resemble ancient coins, and so eating lenticchie will help bring prosperity and wealth in the New Year.
Often, this traditional dish is prepared with a type of pork called cotechino, a very large pork sausage that is usually cooked slowly. The pork, as it is fatty, represents abundance and bounty. However, since it is a cut of meat that is difficult to find here in America, I replaced it with pancetta for this recipe.
When I was younger, we spent every New Year’s Eve at my godparents’ house. My godparents, Enza and Nino, were my parents’ cousins and the most generous people I have ever known. They lived nearby and we visited frequently – they were my parents’ best friends. Going to their house was always special because they made us feel right at home from the moment their door opened. They would usher us in and start feeding us almost immediately. Enza is the most wonderful cook and on New Year’s Eve, the courses went on for hours. Their generosity laid itself out on the tables pushed together to fit all of us.
We began with hot and cold antipasti, followed by heaping bowls of spaghetti alle vongole. Then, platters of Focaccia Barese and traditional Molfettese calzone – dough filled with the cooked fish, cauliflower, and olives, served aside cimi di rape – broccoli rabe. As significant others and children joined the table, Enza started to make a pizza rustica, a traditional calzone now filled with ricotta, mozzarella and ham. Then would come the raw seafood and trays of lobsters and shrimp. And on the table, always, a humble plate of lentils. I remember one year seeing my Nonna Chiara nudging her sister-in-law, my Zia Maria, to eat the lentils, with a chuckle “Mangiamo le lenticchie, speriamo l’anno prossimo faciammo ricchi” (“let’s eat the lentils, hopefully we’ll be rich next year”).
Well, none of us won the lottery or struck it rich, but I will tell you what we all were always rich in – the love between us all and the memories we made, that night, and all the others we spent together.
Lenticchie per Capodanno | New Year's Lentils
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 cup lentils, rinsed and checked for sentiment
- 4 oz pancetta, diced
- 1 cup white onion, diced
- 1 cup celery, diced
- 1 cup carrots, diced
- 4 cups chicken stock (reduced sodium).
- 1 cup grape tomatoes, cut in half
- Celery leaves from stalks
- Salt and Pepper, to taste
- Fresh Parsley for garnish
- Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and allow oil to heat for 1-2 minutes.
- Add pancetta to the pot and let brown, about 5 minutes. Stir sporadically. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon, set aside.
- Now, make the soffritto. Add remaining tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil to the pot and heat for another minute. Add onions and cook until softened slightly, about 4 minutes. Add celery and carrots, stirring frequently until softened, for an additional 5 minutes.
- Add lentils and toss so that they are well incorporated into the soffritto. Add chicken stock, tomatoes, and celery leaves. Stir together. Bring to a boil.
- When the mixture has reached a boil, taste, and add salt and pepper accordingly.* Reduce to a low heat, and simmer for 30-40 minutes.**
- Plate and garnish with fresh parsley. Serve immediately.
*The pancetta is salty, as can chicken stock be (especially if you are not using reduced sodium or homemade). Taste the soup before adding salt – personally, I only needed about a pinch – but add to your taste.
**After 30 minutes, the lentils will have cooked through and you will have achieved a soup-like dish. If you prefer to serve this as a side, you can continue to simmer for an additional 15 minutes, or until all the liquid has been absorbed.