This hearty Italian dish from the northern Italian region of Umbria is said to bring good luck because the lentils look like coins when they are done cooking. “It is the traditional food eaten on New Year’s for good luck,” says Italy-based chef and owner of Cooking Vacations Lauren Birmingham Piscitelli. In particular, says Lauren, lentils are considered very lucky, “Dried lentils are often wrapped in little wreath-like decorations and passed out to friends and families ensuring health, happiness and good fortune in the new year.”
Cotechino sausage really belongs to Northern Italy, where it differs slightly from region to region. For example, in the town of Villastrada, they include a small amount of vanilla in the cure. “But in Piacenza, where my mother is from, the typical cotechino sausage is encased in a bladder or intestine, dried and aged for 30 to 40 days before being boiled. It has Barbera wine, peppercorns, and a mix of lean pork and fatty pork rind,” says home cook Christian Galliani. He recalls big family celebrations that focused on this dish during New Year’s Eve. “At least 20 people would come for my grandmother’s cotechino e lenticchie. They would talk of how the dish would lead to good fortune all year!”
Christian recalls that his father would carry lentils in his pockets year-round as a result of this belief. For years after his father died, Christian would find lentils in the pockets of his father’s clothes that he kept. Today he prepares the dish for New Year’s and serves it with a side dish of mashed potatoes with lots of butter, sprinkled with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Cotechino e Lenticchie: Lentils and Cotechino Sausage
Adapted from a recipe by Lauren Birmingham Piscitelli in Cooking Vacations January 2010 Newsletter
Total Time: 2 hours 15 minutes to 3 hours 15 minutes
Prep: 15 minutes, plus 8 hours to soak the lentils
Cook: 2 to 3 hours
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1 1/2 cups small green lentils
1 pound cotechino-type sausage *
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 bay leaves
1 medium onion, peeled but left whole
1 teaspoon salt
Handful of finely chopped parsley
About 2 cups water
* This sausage is hard to find in the U.S. You can use any mild sausage you like.
Place the lentils in a large bowl and cover with water. Soak for 8 hours.
Puncture the cotechino several times with the point of a knife so the skin won’t split when it cooks. Place the cotechino in a saucepan and cover by a couple of inches with water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, then simmer until the sausage is cooked through, about 1 hour.
In the meantime, drain the lentils and place in a pan with 1 cup water, a drizzle of olive oil, the bay leaves and onion; season lightly with salt. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, then simmer for about 45 minutes, adding a little more water if the lentils start to dry out. When the lentils are done, check the seasoning and add salt if necessary. Stir in the parsley.
Remove the sausage from the water. Slice and serve over the cooked lentils.
Monica Bhide is the author of “Modern Spice” (Simon & Schuster, 2009).