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, following the typical Italian meal service, a perfect primo (first course) would be an elegant Champagne Risotto, followed perhaps by a roasted fish dish. Dessert could be a tiramisù or montebianco.
Midnight is the time to break out a hearty platter of cotechino con le lenticchie, or Cotechino with Lentils. The cotechino, an extremely rich seasoned pork sausage from Emilia-Romagna, is boiled, sliced and served on top of a bed of gently braised lentils. Italian custom has it that if you start the New Year by eating these coin-shaped legumes, 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 a pre-cooked cotechino sold in a large vacuum-packed pouch. That makes life really easy. Aside from gently reheating the sausage, all you have do is to prepare the lentils and serve. Everything can be done ahead and brought out in time for the stoke of midnight.
And if having a rich sausage and lentils at midnight sounds a bit too much, you can always serve this dish as your main course on the Eve or even as your first big meal of the year on January 1.
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)
Warming the Cotechino
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.)
Preparing the Lentils
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 simmer together for a minute or two.
Then add a ladleful or two of rich broth or the lentil cooking liquid or, best of all, some of the juice from the cotechino. Simmer for a few minutes more, long enough for the flavors to meld and the lentils to become entirely tender. Do not overcook the lentils 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. Lay down a 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 cotechino juice on top of the lentils for even more lovely flavor and unctuousness.
Notes on Cotechino with Lentils
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. 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.
Uncooked cotechini are available, or used to be back in the day, in Italian areas of New York and other big cities. To prepare an uncooked cotechino, 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. Simmer the cotechino in enough water to cover it, 2 hours for a big cotechino, 45 minutes for a small one. The resulting broth can be added to the lentils for extra flavor.
By the way, cotechino is not the only kind of sausage eaten on New Years. Personally, I rather prefer the zampone, which is a pig’s trotter stuffed with the same mixture. The presentation is much more dramatic and the pig’s skin adds even more lusciousness to the final dish.
Of course, you can always use ‘regular’ Italian sausages for this dish. A lot of Italian-Americans I know do just that. Sauté them gently in some olive oil until golden brown and well cooked. Deglaze the pan with broth, some wine or just water, and add the liquid 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.
While lentils are obligatory on New Years, for other occasions cotechino also pairs very nicely with mashed potatoes or other legumes such as cannellini beans.
Other Italian New Year’s Traditions
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 was to throw out something old from your window at midnight to say ‘goodbye’ to the ending year. And they say that red underwear will bring good luck in the coming year.