New Year’s Eve for Italians—like so many other holidays—is marked by a large, festive meal, often an elegant seafood dinner, called the cenone di San Silvestro or cenone di Capodanno, the word ‘cenone‘ being Italian for ‘big supper’. For me, a seafood risotto like risotto alla crema di scampi would be a perfect primo, followed perhaps by a roasted fish dish. Dessert could be a tiramisù or Montebianco.
Midnight, however, is the time to break out this hearty dish, as Italian custom has it that if you start the New Year by eating coin-shaped lentils, it will bring you prosperity. While most people just take a little dish of the stuff—remember, this is coming after you’ve had a major dinner—the more lentils you eat, the richer you will be. Or, at least, that is the theory…
While it may sound like culinary heresy, most people (and I do the same) buy pre-cooked cotechino that is sold in a large vacuum-packed pouch. That makes life really easy. All that’s left to do is to simmer the lentils and serve. Everything can be done ahead and brought out in time for the stoke of 12.
Serves 4-6, or more
- One cotechino, pre-cooked (or not: see Notes)
For the lentils:
- 500g (1 lb.) lentils
- 1 medium onion
- 1-2 cloves of garlic
- 1 sprig of fresh sage or rosemary
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- A chunk of pancetta or a few slices of prosciutto, finely minced (optional)
You just simmer the cotechino, still in its pouch, in enough water to cover for about 20-30 minutes to reheat it. The sausage is quite fatty and it needs to be hot enough to start melting that fat, which gives it a wonderfully unctuous texture and flavor. For a large cotechino, I find that a fish poacher is ideal; an oval Dutch oven also works for smaller ones. You can keep the cotechino warm almost indefinitely until you are ready to eat. (For notes on preparing an uncooked cotechino or an American cotechino, see the Notes below.)
In the meanwhile, prepare the lentils. There are various ways to do this, but my personal favorite is the simplest: simmer the lentils in water with a sprig of thyme or sage or another aromatic herb and a clove of garlic until just barely tender. In a separate pot, make a simple soffritto of onion (and if you like, some finely minced prosciutto or pancetta) in olive oil and butter until quite tender. Strain and add your just cooked lentils to the soffritto, allowing them to insaporire for a few minutes, then add a ladleful or two of rich broth or the lentil cooking liquid or, best of all, the juice from the cotechino (see next paragraph). Simmer long enough for the flavors to meld and the lentils to become entirely tender. Do not overcook the lentils, however, or they will become rather stodgy.
When the lentils are just about done, carefully remove the cotechino from its pouch by cutting open up one side and allowing its contents—the cotechino itself and a fair amount of fatty juice—into a deep serving dish, preferably oval in shape to accommodate the cotechino comfortably. That juice has wonderful flavor: I like to add a ladleful or so to the lentils and let them absorb that flavor.
To serve, remove the cotechino to a cutting board and slice it thickly. Then lay out of ‘bed’ of the lentils in a large serving platter, then the cotechino slices in a pleasant arrangement on top of the lentils. You can, if you like—and I do—add a bit more of the juice on top of the lentils for even more lovely flavor and unctuousness.
The cotechino is originally from Emilia-Romagna, specifically from the city of Modena. It is made from pork, fatback and pork rind, along with various spices. Some producers add wine as well as other flavorings and preservatives. Cotechino has TGI status, so one made outside its designated area is not a real cotechino. Although originally a local specialty, thanks to modern industrial production and marketing, in modern times cotechino (like panettone, originally from Milan) has become a national holiday tradition.
Preparing an uncooked cotechino (which are available, or used to be back in the day, in Italian areas of New York) is a bit more elaborate: you prick the sausage all over with a pin. (Don’t use a fork as it creates holes that are too big; the skin may rupture and the stuffing, which is rather soft, may start to ooze out.) You then wrap the cotechino up in cheesecloth and tie it up with some cooking twine. The cotechino is then simmered in water for 2 hours for a big cotechino, 45 minutes for a small one. The resulting ‘broth’ can be added to the lentils as indicated above. (By the way, some recipes will tell you to degrease the broth before adding it to the lentils—but why throw away all that lusciousness? After all, it’s the holidays.)
In the US, Beretta markets a domestic pre-cooked cotechino that is not half bad, but not the real deal. It is a rather leaner rather smaller than a real cotechino, and comes ‘dry’ wrapped in clear plastic. You remove the plastic and simmer it for only 10-20 minutes. You will not have that luscious juice, however, to use. They can be found in Italian delis and are available online.
Of course, if you don’t have a cotechino on hand, you can always use ‘regular’ Italian sausages, sautéed gently in some olive oil until golden brown and well cooked. When they are done, deglaze the pan with broth, some wine or just water, and add the sucs to the lentils.
As mentioned, there are various ways to make the lentils. In particular, many people prefer to use the classic soffritto italiano of onion, celery and carrot rather than just onion. But I personally find that the addition of carrot and celery for some reason gives the lentils an ‘off’ taste. I prefer the pure lentil flavor you get with a simple onion soffritto. Some recipes call for adding tomato which, to my mind, denatures the taste even more. For some recommendations on choosing and cooking lentils, see the post on Ham and Lentil Casserole (which would make for a nice substitute, by the way, if you can’t find a cotechino and have some leftover Christmas ham in the fridge). Obviously, this is not an everyday dish, but both cotechino and zampone can be eaten on occasions other than New Year’s Eve. In fact, I actually prefer to eat this dish for lunch on New Year’s Day. For one thing, after a large cenone, there is not much room for yet another dish—and a very rich one at that—and, an added plus, all the fat in the dish is great if you happen to have been’ over-served’ the night before…
While lentils are obligatory on New Years, cotechino is also very nice served with mashed potatoes or other kinds of legumes such as cannellini beans.
New Year’s Eve is known in Italian as San Silvestro, after Pope Sylvester I (reign 314-335) who was buried on December 31. After Sylvester was canonized, the date became the liturgical feast of Saint Sylvester. Like others, Italians like to drink sparkling wine on New Years and enjoy firework displays. One old tradition, especially in Naples, was to throw out something old from your window at midnight to say ‘goodbye’ to the ending year. And it is also said that wearing red underwear will bring good luck in the coming year, although this is one tradition I have never followed!
Though not associated with New Years as far as I am aware, there is a similar sausage from Ferrara called the salama da sugo. It has a more accentuated flavor, being more heavily spiced (usually with nutmeg but sometimes also with cloves or cinnamon) and personally I find it even more delicious than the other two. The salama is typically eaten with mashed potatoes or a purée of zucca (Italian pumpkin)—the flavor is just too intense to eat on its own. (See this article for a description in English.) Unfortunately, it is little known outside Italy and, as far as I know, unavailable in the US. I have found this online source for those in the UK.
Post Scriptum: Since writing the above post, fellow blogger Laura Pazzaglia of hip pressure cooking published a great post on making both cotechino and lentils in the same pressure cooker. If you have a pressure cooker—and you definitely should!—it’s a wonderfully clever way to make short work of this dish using a ‘real’ cotechino. Well worth a try!