In Italy, a traditional New Year’s Eve meal is focused on symbolizing abundance. New Year’s Eve falls on the same day as the celebration of Saint Sylvester, so in Italy, December 31 is known as La Festa di San Silvestro. The celebration of begins with a large feast and although every region in Italy has its own twist the meal, it is certain that every table includes lentils and pork.
In Tuscany, lentils are eaten with cotechino, a large pork sausage, while in Modena and Bologna they are usually served with zampone. When lentils are combined with pork, the meal becomes exceptionally favorable, as each carries its own legends of good fortune.
The dinner concludes with dried fruit and grapes. According to tradition, having grapes present on the table during New Year’s ensures that those sitting at the table will be wise and frugal spenders of money. This is based on the idea that one must exercise significant willpower in order to conserve grapes taken from the autumn grape harvest without eating them until New Year’s Eve. A person with such willpower will surely be a wise and frugal spender in the coming year. Grapes are also seen to be a sign of good health and Italians are sure to eat at least 12 grapes on New Year’s Eve, one for each month of the year.
Cotechino with Lentils
A traditional New Year’s Eve meal throughout Italy
3 pounds pre-cooked cotechino sausage in casing
2 cups lentils
6 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 tsp red chili pepper flakes
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp fresh sage, minced
1/2 tsp fresh thyme, minced
1 sprig of rosemary
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
fine sea salt, to taste
freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium saucepan over a medium flame. Add the cherry tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes until slightly wilted, then add the sage, thyme and sprig of rosemary. Sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the lentils and pour in just enough water to cover them. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil over a high flame and then reduce to a simmer. Cover and allow the lentils to simmer very gently until they are tender and creamy, 35 to 45 minutes. Check occasionally and add water in very small amounts if the lentils begin to stick before they are fully cooked.
Fill a large pot halfway with water. Prick the cotechino in several places with a pin – do not use a fork, the holes will be too large. Add the sausages to the water and bring to a boil. Reduce the flame to medium. Simmer the sausages until you see the fat in the casing change from a solid to a liquid and the sausages begin to plump, this will be anywhere from 25 to 40 minutes, depending on their size. Remove them from the water and place them on a dry towel.
Pour the remaining ½ cup olive oil into a large skillet and set over a medium flame. Scatter the crushed garlic cloves in the skillet. Cook until lightly browned, then remove with a slotted spoon and discard. Add the pepper flakes to the infused oil; increase the flame to medium-high and immediately place the sausages in the pan.
Cook the sausages, rotating them frequently, until they are lightly browned on all sides, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove the sausages from the pan, allow them to rest for a few minutes, then slice them into 1/4 to 1/2 inch rounds. To serve, place some of the lentils in individual serving bowls and top each portion with slices of cotechino.
Risotto in Bianco
In Piemonte and Friuli, in addition to lentils, grains of rice represent abundance, since rice grows in the pot the way that you’d like your wealth to multiply in the New Year!
5 cups chicken broth, warmed
3 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups short grain Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup Parmigiano cheese, grated
2 tbsp butter
salt and pepper to taste
small handful of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Place chicken broth in a heavy saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer over a low flame. Heat the olive oil in a heavy saucepan over a medium flame and sauté the onions and garlic, stirring frequently, until onions become translucent, about 4 to 5 minutes.
Stir in the rice and cook over a medium flame, stirring constantly for 3 to 4 minutes, until some rice begins to look translucent.
Add the wine and cook, stirring frequently until the liquid is absorbed. Add about 1/2 cup of simmering chicken broth to the rice mixture, stirring constantly, until the liquid is absorbed. At this point, add more broth, about 1 cup at a time and stir.
The whole cooking process should take about 20 to 25 minutes. The rice should be tender, but firm in the center. When the rice is done, remove the pan from the stove and stir in Parmigiano and butter, adding salt and pepper to taste. Stir until melted. Top with chopped parsley and serve.