Lentils and pork sausages, the first to represent coins, the second for abundance, served up together, has long been considered an auspicious dish with which to usher in the New Year in some parts of Italy. Take Modena’s lenticchie di Capodanno, braised lentils crowned with zampone, a delicate mixture of finely ground pork subtly seasoned with nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, and black pepper stuffed into a pig’s trotter; or cotechino, a similar sausage, sans the trotter. One or the other is obligatory eating when the clock strikes midnight everywhere north of Rome—sumptuous eating, but not easily reproduced outside of Modena unless you have access to a good Italian specialty market.
For me, the important thing is to include not only lentils for luck and pork for plenty, but also, olive oil, ancient symbol of long life, renewal, and peace. Life begins with olive oil: A drop on a newborn’s head is a traditional blessing in Italian households, and it is mixed with baby’s first solid food. It anoints the breasts of monarchs at their coronations and marks the foreheads of the dying in their final breath of life. Here’s our family’s delicious New Year lentil and sausage dish using all three ingredients.
Brown lentils, particularly the tiny, plump Umbrian Castelluccio type that hold their shape, are traditional, but you can also use the tasty French green, or Puy variety; alternatively, the earthy “black” Beluga lentils.
Procuring Good Sausages:
You will need good quality, straightforward pork sausages, which in America are labeled “sweet pork sausages.”It is best to source them from butchers who use meat from sustainably and humanely raised pigs that are never given antibiotics or growth hormones. Such meat not only tastes better, it is better for you than pork produced from factory-farmed animals, and takes into account animal welfare. In addition, it is important to know whether any chemicals have been added. Monosodium glutamate, nitrates, or nitrites are routinely used in the sausage-making process. While the meat industry maintains that MSG improves flavor and nitrites preserves the red color of meat, there is incontrovertible proof that they are bad for your health. The best pork sausages are made using whole muscle, not scraps, and enough fat to make them juicy without being greasy. Sausages sold in the States are often gussied up with all kinds of flavorings, from broccoli to pineapple. Italian butchers do not do this. The famous butchers of Umbria, a region famed for its pork sausages and salumi, season theirs with judicious amounts of mashed fresh garlic and black pepper and little else.
About Olive Oil:
If you haven’t already read my report about olive oil, don’t miss it. You’ll find it here, along with a link to the full story I wrote for Zester Daily.
My New Year’s Lentils and Sausages
For 6 people
You can make the lentils several hours ahead, but cook the sausages at the last minute if you’d like to serve them sizzling and glistening. To prepare the entire dish in advance of serving, cook the sausages earlier in the day and warm them together with the lentils in a covered casserole in a preheated 375 degree F oven, moistening the lentils as necessary with the reserved lentil cooking water. Pre-boiling before braising lentils reduces their starchiness, rendering them sweeter and rounding out their earthy flavor.
1 pound (about 2-1/4 cups) lentils
1 bay leaf
1 small bunch fresh sage, tied into a bundle with kitchen twine
4-5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus your best olive oil for the table
1 small celery heart with leaves, or 1 stalk, minced
1 medium carrot, peeled and minced
1 small onion, minced
4 large cloves garlic, bruised
salt, preferably sea salt
3 tablespoons tomato paste
freshly ground black pepper
12 “sweet” Italian-style pork sausages
- Rinse and pick over the lentils for small stones or impurities. Cover them with cold water and soak them for a few minutes. Transfer them to a colander and wash them in cold running water. Drain. Put the lentils and bay leaf and sage bundle in a pot and add cold water to cover by 3 inches. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until they are not quite tender, about 15 minutes. Skim off any foam that forms at the top. Because cooking times can vary, you’ll want to taste them at this point. If they are still quite hard, cook further for 5-minute increments and keep checking until they are al dente. Turn off the heat and stir in 3 teaspoons of salt; let stand for 5 minutes. Drain the lentils, reserving the cooking water. Fish out the bay and sage leaves.
- In an ample skillet over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil. Stir in the garlic. When it is lightly colored, add the chopped celery, carrot, and onion, and sautè, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are nicely softened, but do not allow them to brown, 8-10 minutes. Stir in the drained lentils. Add the tomato paste and enough lentil water to barely cover. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low; simmer, stirring occasionally, until the lentils have absorbed the liquid and they are completely tender but not mushy, 5-10 minutes. Add more of the reseved cooking water as necessary to keep the lentils from drying out, but avoid adding more than will be absorbed. The consistency should be loose but not watery. Turn off the heat and let stand for about 10 minutes. Season with pepper.
- To cook the sausages, preheat an oven to 375 degrees F. Select an ample, seasoned cast-iron skillet or other heavy-bottomed oven-proof pan. Warm a tablespoon or two of the olive oil over medium heat. You will want it to shimmer but not smoke. Slip in the sausages. If they are in a coil, cook the coil whole without cutting it or puncturing it. Brown on both sides just to color them nicely but don’t cook them through, about 6 minutes on each side, regulating the heat as necessary to get them to sear without hardening and resisting the temptation to prick them at any point. Transfer the pan to the middle rack of the oven and roast until just cooked through but not dried out, 5-10 minutes depending on the girth of the sausages. Remove from heat.
- Plate the lentils in a wide, shallow platter. Finish with a thread of your best olive oil. Arrange the sausages on top. Serve it forth.