Some five or six years ago, a very close friend of mine from the Veneto region tuned me into no big secret to any Italian on this side of the holidays: lentils for the New Year. More specifically: a handful of lentils at the stroke of midnight on January 1st (that’s the night of December 31st). Still more specifically: a handful of lentils (often) prepared with sausage — the famous “lenticchie e cotechino del Capodanno.”
Much to my personal bewilderment, I discovered only then a tradition that has been alive since the early Roman Empire (these are the bits of information that often get lost in Italo-Canadian households fighting hard to keep alive the traditions most important to them, and in doing so, necessarily sacrificing or forgetting others). To the early Romans, lentils, though a poor ingredient unworthy of patrician circles, with their coin-like shape, represented prosperity in the new year. With parity of weight, a small satchel of lentils contains more individual items than their counterparts in other legumes. If each bean is to represent one coin, a pound of lentils, then, is worth much more than a pound of chickpeas or kidney beans.
And so it was that the tradition of preparing and eating the contents of that small satchel — a handful of lentils — for the new year began.
I am a big fan of lentils, but only semi-keen on boiled or broiled cotechino, so since the big reveal in 2012 or 2013, I’ve prepared my own version of a lentil dish with which to ring in the new year. Below is my favourite: brown lentil soup (also excellent for winter colds and winter blues!). Make it wearing your brightest red underwear (another way to invite luck – this time in love – into your life for the new year) and let the countdown to 2019 begin!
Buon anno a tutti!
1 whole chicken
1-2 stalks of celery
1 large red or white onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
1.5 litres of water
500g of dried brown lentils
salt, pepper, sweet paprika to taste
1 bay leaf
1. Prepare your broth. In a large pot, cover your chicken (cleaned, gizzards removed) with 1 litre of water (or until it is fully submersed) and half the onion and set to boil. When the water reaches a boil, lower the heat and let it simmer for another 1.5 hours, being mindful that the level of water does not reduce excessively.
2. Prepare your lentils. Follow the instructions on the pack to prepare your lentils. Some require soaking a few hours in advance, others require a quick boil (2-3 minutes) followed by a 45-minute resting period.
3. Prepare the “soffritto.” Finely chop the rest of the onion, wash and coarsely cut the celery stalks, peel, wash, and cut the carrots into rounds. Pour 2-3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil into a large pot on low-medium heat. Once it is hot, add the onion and let simmer until translucent. Add the celery and carrots. Season with salt, pepper, and a dash of sweet paprika and let simmer until carrots are slightly tender to the touch.
4. Pour in the lentils and stir until well blended. Next, pour in the broth 1 ladle at a time until the water is two inches higher than the lentils (lentils will be fully submerged at this point). Add the bay leaf and let simmer for 20 minutes (or until lentils have absorbed the water) on low heat.
5. Season the soup again. Add salt, pepper, sweet paprika and any other spices you might enjoy (I also like a flake or two of chili pepper) and let simmer for an additional 20 minutes. Always be mindful of the water level, making sure that the lentils never absorb it completely, or they will stick to the bottom of the pan. If you run out of broth, just add plain warm water.
6. Once lentils are soft, remove the pot from the heat and let cool for 5-10 minutes before serving.